Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc hasn’t been pleased with its robotics subsidiary, Boston Dynamics. A report from Bloomberg indicates Alphabet executives don’t think it will generate any substantial revenue in the next few years, and that Boston Dynamics is difficult to work with. Therefore, Google has been thinking of selling the company. Some potential buyers include the Toyota Research Institute and Amazon.com, which makes robots for its fulfillment centers.
Yet more interesting in who’s going to own this company are some internal messages from Google, indicating that the company is scared of Boston Dynamics. Last month, Boston Dynamics released a video showing their new robots doing various tasks, such as walking around the woods in the snow, opening doors, trying to pick up a box while somebody with a hockey stick pushed away the box and poked at the robot or rising after falling down. It was an insanely advanced humanoid robot, leaps and bounds above any previous work. This work was viewed with excitement, without a doubt, but also plenty of terror, as this reached a level of AI that many think has gone too far.
Google acquired Boston Dynamics, as well as a few other robotics startups, back in December 2013, as part of a plan to build a robotics engineering team inside Google. Yet since then, not much has happened. With a project called Replicant, Google was supposed to ship affordable robots as quickly as possible, yet it was an uphill battle. There were issues with leadership, failures to collaborate between companies and an unsuccessful bid at recruiting a new leader. Executives at Boston Dynamics, said one person familiar with the group, were unwilling to work with Google’s other robot engineers in California and Tokyo, and failed to come up with any products that could be released in the near-term. Google director of robotics Aaron Edsinger said that working with Boston Dynamics was “a bit of a brick wall”. Meeting notes and private emails were published on an internal forum that only Google employees could see, but somebody tipped these to Bloomberg.
When the issue of how far artificial intelligence should go first appeared in our minds, epitomized by Isaac Asimov’s classic short story collection “I, Robot”, it seemed like such a far-away issue. People were a little worried when the Internet first became a thing, but the thought of robots like something out of a story from Isaac Asimov or Philip K Dick felt like something in the distant future. Yet looking at the progress that companies like Boston Dynamics have made, even if they aren’t making Google any money, it reveals that the future is a lot closer than previously thought.
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