Google Selling Boston Dynamics: Robotics Ambitions Abandoned?

March 21, 2016
By: Steve Anderson

Robotics was the hot topic on many lips for a long time, but now there's some evidence that the market is in remission as Google (News - Alert) was recently spotted poised to sell Boston Dynamics, makers of the Big Dog robot line. While the concept was getting huge worldwide attention, Google reportedly had some doubts as to just how marketable this product line really was.

The reports suggested that Google's parent company, Alphabet, was engaging in one of the most standard corporate activities: ensuring profitability for the various divisions under its umbrella, or at least that there were plans on hand to generate such profitability. Alphabet's studies found that Boston Dynamics wasn't likely to have a marketable product within the next few years, and thus decided that was too long-term a view, and put the division up for sale.

Some other problems had emerged as well, including reports of reluctance on Boston Dynamics' part to work with other Google robot engineers in Tokyo and California as well as some friction within the organization in terms of how long profitability was expected to be in the making. These culminated in word from Google X head Astro Teller noting that, if robotics weren't the solution to problems on hand, those involved in robotics would be moved to working on other things.

Don't feel too badly here, however; several interested buyers may step in, including Toyota and Amazon, who is already well-known for the use of robots in fulfillment centers as well as its drone delivery systems still in the works. Yet there's one additional problem here, one Google X wanted to be “distanced” from, as reports noted. That problem was the notion that robots were both potentially terrifying and the next thing to seize human jobs.

We've all seen robots do wonders, like the units used following the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, we've also seen robots mean disaster, like the robots that replace assembly line workers. Some fast food workers may be out of a job if automated sandwich construction robots go into place on a wide scale, and that's just the start. Even Google's self-driving car ambitions could mean job losses; what sense is a bus or taxi driver in a field where the bus or taxi can drive itself? The nature of changing technology can cause these things to happen; it's hoped that it produces new industries to replace the old ones, but if that change isn't close to parity or doesn't happen quickly, it can mean societal problems like high unemployment.

Whether Google's out of the robot game altogether or just wanted a shorter-term return on investment (ROI) isn't clear, but robots represent a major potential destabilizing agent to society as we know it, and that may not have been something Google would want to be in on.




Edited by Stefania Viscusi