Google Buys Boston Dynamics in Sensational Eighth Robotics Acquisition

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Google just acquired Boston Dynamics. It’s the eighth robotics company the California tech titan has purchased in six months and, by far, the most significant. For two decades, Boston Dynamics has produced some of the world's most advanced robots.

Neil Jacobstein, co-chair of the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Track at Singularity University, told Singularity Hub, “This is a watershed event. A very big deal. Google is buying up high potential robotics companies. Boston Dynamics is the pick of the litter.”

Even if you don’t follow technology or robots closely, you may have watched one of their viral videos with some combination of awe, fear, and the realization that robots are nowhere near as clunky as you thought they were.

The firm’s humanoid Atlas and Petman robots can balance on two legs, walk, and do calisthenics. Video of an uncannily human Petman in fatigues—the robot was built to test chemical warfare gear—drew over three million views earlier this year.

Beyond the bipedal, the company’s Cheetah robot runs faster than Usain Bolt; their WildCat robot recently took Cheetah's tricks beyond the treadmill; their robot SandFlea leaps onto tall buildings; and LS3 autonomously follows soldiers across rough terrain, carrying gear and supplies on its back. (Check out the full roster here.)

The Boston Dynamics bots are rugged and multi-functional. And while many robotics firms are doing inspiring work, none have produced a complete package that so closely resembles the popular image of what a robot should be.

Google, meanwhile, has billions at its beck and call. They make clever algorithms with designs on artificial intelligence, own the most sophisticated self-driving car on the road, and write paychecks to AI luminaries like Geoffrey Hinton and Ray Kurzweil.

It’s simple addition to see why the deal is making headlines.

Some folks look on some of Boston Dynamics’ creations with trepidation because they have largely been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). But Boston Dynamics founder, Marc Raibert, has said he doesn’t consider his firm to be part of the military industrial complex. They’re just trying to take robotics to the next level.

Boston Dynamics robot cheetah.

Boston Dynamics robot cheetah.

Meanwhile, Darpa says Boston Dynamics robots will find useful, innocuous applications helping soldiers carry gear and braving hazardous environments to provide aid in humanitarian situations.

Even so, primed by Hollywood, it’s easy for folks to picture them in combat too.

It might, therefore, ease some worries that Google—whose corporate motto is “don’t be evil”—will wean Boston Dynamics off military contracts. Google says they'll honor the firm’s current workload but won’t pursue future military funding.

The question, then, is what will the firm do with all its newly acquired robotics expertise? Andy Rubin, creator of Google’s Android operating system, is the man behind the new robotics division. And he's mostly mum on specifics.

The other seven companies acquired include makers of humanoid robots, a specialist in robotic arms, a robotics software firm, and a computer vision company. It’s thought immediate applications will be industrial—the further automation of manufacturing processes and manual labor in warehouses.

With the addition of Boston Dynamics, however, one can imagine Google robots spanning industries, perhaps even making it into homes.

Boston Dynamics Atlas robot walking over a field of rubble.

Boston Dynamics Atlas robot navigating rubble.

Gentler roles for robots include therapy for children or the elderly or peaceful drones delivering supplies to poor, remote communities. Where Amazon promises fulfillment and delivery by air, Google might build its own robots to compete. As robots become more advanced, and smarter, there isn't much they can't help do.

Jacobstein notes Google's sponsorship of the Lunar X Prize. Robots have been central to space exploration in recent decades, and their role may expand—whether they mine asteroids or prepare the ground for human missions to Mars and beyond.

Though Rubin is careful to caution the project is a “moonshot”—work Google believes is important and ambitious but far from guaranteed of quick success—he also indicated to the NYT that commercial Google robots may appear in years, not decades.

All this is part of Google's gargantuan push to expand beyond search and advertising, still responsible for over 90% of the firm's revenue.

The company is spending some $2 billion a quarter on research and development, and robotics fits snugly into their research endeavors, particularly artificial intelligence.

"AI is about manipulating information with precision and being able to do pattern recognition," Jacobstein told us, "Robotics is about manipulating matter.”

Put those together and computers extend their range and capability. Jacobstein hopes at Google, the two fields, AI and robotics, will influence each other and undergo a kind of feedback loop to accelerate progress in both.

Image Credit: Boston Dynamics

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 5 Responses

  • Tsarpov December 16, 2013 on 10:04 am

    Boston Dynamic tech is advance enough to create hunt and attack robotic beast. Checkout YouTube. This will be used to hunt and track dissenters of the state in the near future. Combine this with Cognitive computing advances and we have a threat to mankind on the way. Well a threat to those who are not part of the ruling elite.

  • bciabattoni December 16, 2013 on 2:01 pm

    Its official. Google=Skynet. Larry and Sergei better hire bodyguards to protect them from the terminators. They should be arriving any day now.

  • mikemcfarlane December 16, 2013 on 10:26 pm

    I’d expect a better quality of comment here than regurgitating the same old tired robot apocalypse jokes. Firstly, on balance robotics has more potential to help mankind than to hinder. Second, technology inherently has no morals, it’s people who are a threat to mankind. Thirdly, if you actually believe this, I mean really believe this, then I suggest you do something about it other than wasting time on web forums. Building something positive and useful yourself would be a good first step or, just take up arms now.

    $2bn/quarter on R&D – that’s impressive. I’m not sure that BD is such a huge deal though, they are impressive, as are some of the other companies bought. We’ve had decent robotics hardware for a few years, although there are still advances to be made and needed particularly in sensing and power supplies. The big advances needed are in software, and designing robots that are actually useful to people/business. Google has that kind of employee in droves anyway. Maybe it gives them that hardware experience that they took so long to get right with Android phones. In the end I guess it is typical Google, someone there likes a company, puts a case forward, then goes and buys it. Interesting to see where it goes.

  • Drazil December 17, 2013 on 6:29 am

    don’t think Google really cares about the average humans
    the only thing they care about is greed of money

    when they took over youtube they didn’t care what anyone said to them about the look of youtube
    they just continued to ignore the people and do what They wanted
    so..many people are suppose to Trust them?

  • Facebook - tesla.berry December 30, 2013 on 10:18 am

    I fear one of the biggest impediments to technological progress is actually, a subtle and entrenched statis of the current ‘leadership’ of big-tech. no cave man or nuclear missile is going to stop ‘technological progress’ but the failure of innovation at major companies is actually a huge impediment when those companies hold all the money and ability to attract talent. why do massive companies fail? look at bell labs, ibm, and the history of dinosaurs that got stuck in labrea tar traps of malinvestment. there are any number of reasons but at the end of the day, the distributed statistical nature of failure across individuals (death) , corporations (bankruptcy), and governing regimes ( ‘revolution’ ) ,—-simply guarantees that too big too fail social support and unquestioned obedience to establishment status quo leadership results in ever bigger catastophes when systems finally inevitably collapse. just like the forest fires that become wildly devastating after years of fire supression by ‘fire wardens’ —-Nowadays , the smart ‘wardens’ simply do nothing and let small naturally occuring fires burn as they will without putting them out. the forest manages itself.