I note with mixed feelings Alphabet’s decision to sell Boston Dynamics, a robotics company it acquired in 2013, because it feels that the company won’t be able to produce marketable products any time soon.
Boston Dynamics is a company I had been following for a number of years because of the very interesting work it was doing in making durable, eerily-lifelike robots do any number of things, like carry heavy backpacks, pick up boxes, and so on. Their work, it seemed to me, was potentially far in advance of robotics work already being done in heavy industry and by companies like iRobot, which makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner for consumer use and IED mine sweepers for the military. To be honest, I had always hoped that Boston Dynamics, a private contractor with governmental research and development entities like DARPA, would go public so that I could invest money it in, but Google, with its subsidiary businesses under the name “Alphabet,” got there first.
The products that iRobot makes are, I gather, the kind of marketable devices (“toys” or “gadgets,” if you will), that Alphabet had hoped Boston Dynamics could deliver. But there was and is a culture clash between the engineers who work within Google’s R & D division (called “Google X”) and the engineers at Boston Dynamics. BD has never shown a profit in its history and Google, now that it has acquired so many diverse companies with its hoard of search engine-generated cash, must begin to show one. The decision to sell Boston Dynamics is one I understand completely from a purely business perspective but, given Google’s self-proclaimed forward thinking in all that it does, I wish the company would show a lot more patience.
The embedded video under the first link gives a good sense of what a BD robot can do, and there are videos of other BD robots you can find on YouTube. To many people, the life-like articulation of the robots is frightening. My belief is that Google was sensitive to that fear and, in the end, sought to distance itself from BD’s work on those grounds. That reasoning offers, perhaps, a more defensible excuse for selling the company than saying, “Oops, we don’t think these guys can make money for us.”
Google is not the first tech company to try to navigate the rough seas of capitalism in search of sustainable profitability. But it is one of the few tech companies with the avowed aim to not just make a profit, but change the world in doing so. Tesla is another. So is Apple. When Steve Jobs brought Coke’s John Sculley over to Apple years ago, he asked him a question in exactly those terms: “Do you want to sell sugar water all your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
Any business reaches a point, however, when it has to start selling sugar water to the masses in order to fund those larger, world-changing projects. Google / Alphabet has reached that point. Boston Dynamics wants to create things that might be even more impactful, but they are devices that take time as well as money to develop properly. I’m assuming by the evidence of what they’ve already built that the BD engineers are not truly interested in goofing around in the shop forever. People may be frightened by the motion of their robots. I’ve been telling friends for years that we are closer to the world of The Terminator than anybody realizes. But we are also on the threshold of really remarkable breakthroughs in robotics. We can build robots to go where humans cannot or should not go. Those robots can offer us extraordinary help in the fields of search and rescue, medicine, home health care, transportation and space exploration, to name only the most obvious applications.
Now, though, that era of promising development may be cut very short if Toyota or Amazon, two of the rumored suitors, get their hands on the company. Those two big firms will give us just what this country needs: more assembly-line robots. We were already pretty far away from the mechanized yet interactive world of Isaac Asimov’s Robot Visions. With Alphabet’s announcement that it will let go of Boston Dynamics, we’ve stepped back even further.