Google-owner Alphabet Inc. has agreed to sell robotics firm Boston Dynamics to SoftBank, the Japanese telecommunications and technology company. Terms of the deal remain undisclosed, but news of Alphabet’s intentions to sell Boston Dynamics first surfaced back in March 2016. That was roughly two years after Android co-founder Andy Rubin left Google, where he spearheaded a series of prominent robotics acquisitions, most prominently Boston Dynamics. That division, known internally as Replicant, was disbanded after Rubin’s departure, leaving the future of Boston Dynamics and the other robot companies in flux.
“We at Boston Dynamics are excited to be part of SoftBank’s bold vision and its position creating the next technology revolution, and we share SoftBank’s belief that advances in technology should be for the benefit of humanity,” said Marc Raibert, CEO and founder of Boston Dynamics, in a prepared statement. “We look forward to working with SoftBank in our mission to push the boundaries of what advanced robots can do and to create useful applications in a smarter and more connected world.”
That Alphabet has finally sold its most high-profile robotics subsidiary may signal an end to the company’s passing flirtation with the world of humanoid and industrial robots. Boston Dynamics, a 25-year-old company originally spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has gained a worldwide reputation as a leader in robotics engineering for its development of bipedal and quadruped robots like Atlas and BigDog.
The company has received funding from the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and it pioneered techniques for helping robots maneuver real-world environments and adapt to complex changes in terrain. Its most recent development, shown off in a leaked video in February, is a jumping unit named Handle that combines both wheels and legs into a “nightmare-inducing robot” capable of advanced aerial maneuvers and obstacle avoidance.
Despite the steady march of Boston Dynamics’ robotics innovations, it appears Alphabet leadership didn’t quite know what it would ultimately do with the company. As part of an overall restructuring and cost-saving strategy set forth by Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat last year, the company has taken significant measures to slim down its experimental efforts and rein in its “moonshot” projects. Even prior to Porat’s hiring, it was clear Alphabet was at a bit of a loss with regard to its robotics ambitions. Astro Teller, the head of the company’s X lab, was the one who disbanded Replicant in 2014, before Google was restructured as Alphabet, according to Bloomberg.
As part of the SoftBank deal, Alphabet is also selling Schaft, a humanoid robotics company Google acquired as part of its Replicant buying spree back in 2013 and 2014. Schaft was spun out of the JSK Robotics Laboratory within the University of Tokyo, making it a sensible purchase for SoftBank. Despite its huge presence in the Japanese telecom market, thanks to its 2006 acquisition of Vodafone Japan, SoftBank is also a leader in robotics — the company makes the popular humanoid Pepper robot in partnership with Aldebaran Robotics.
“Today, there are many issues we still cannot solve by ourselves with human capabilities. Smart robotics are going to be a key driver of the next stage of the Information Revolution, and Marc and his team at Boston Dynamics are the clear technology leaders in advanced dynamic robots,” said SoftBank Group CEO Masayoshi Son, in a statement. “I am thrilled to welcome them to the SoftBank family and look forward to supporting them as they continue to advance the field of robotics and explore applications that can help make life easier, safer, and more fulfilling.”