Google parent company Alphabet has finally found a home for robotics firm Boston Dynamics, which went up for sale over a year ago.
Japanese tech giant SoftBank announced on Friday that it is buying Boston Dynamics — the makers of humanoid Atlas, animal-like BigDog, Spot and Wildcat, a jumping Sand Flea, and Handle — for an undisclosed fee, along with another less well-known robotics company called Schaft, which focuses on robots that walk on two legs.
The acquisitions are further evidence that SoftBank has grandiose expectations for the field of robotics, which is being turbocharged by the latest developments in artificial intelligence (AI).
Here is a video of one of the Boston Dynamics robots:
Explaining the logic behind the Boston Dynamics acquisition, Masayoshi Son, SoftBank CEO and Japan’s richest man, said in a statement:
“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 [founder] Marc and his team at Boston Dynamics are the clear technology leaders in advanced dynamic robots.
“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.”
SoftBank is putting billions into the future
Headquartered in Tokyo, SoftBank is a telecommunications company that has a number of “portfolio companies” focusing on advanced telecommunications, internet services, AI, smart robotics, IoT and clean energy. It isn’t very well known compared to Google, but it has billions of dollars at its disposal and it’s been putting them to work lately, backing UK simulated worlds startup Improbable in a $502 million (£394 million) funding round and acquiring Cambridge chip designer ARM for £24 billion last July.
Son is keen to back the kinds of technologies that will support his technological vision for the future and he has created a $93 billion (£73 billion) fund to do this. Interestingly, SoftBank is continuing to make many deals without drawing on the new “Vision Fund,” which companies such as Apple and Sharp have invested in alongside the government of Saudi Arabia.
In February, Son said at a conference in Barcelona that the “singularity” — the point when machine intelligence surpasses our own and goes on to improve itself at an exponential rate — will happen by 2047. He went on to say there will be many types of robots — “Flying, swimming, big, micro, run, two legs, four legs, 100 legs” — before adding that he expects one computer chip to have the equivalent of a 10,000 IQ within the next 30 years.
“I truly believe it’s coming, that’s why I’m in a hurry — to aggregate the cash, to invest,” said Son. “It will be so much more capable than us — what will be our job? What will be our life? We have to ask philosophical questions. Is it good or bad?”
Son added: “I think this superintelligence is going to be our partner. If we misuse it it’s a risk. If we use it in good spirits it will be our partner for a better life. So the future can be better predicted, people will live healthier, and so on.”
Where Boston Dynamics came from
Spun out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founded in 1992, Boston Dynamics’ robots are some of the best when it comes traversing tricky terrain and navigating autonomously, and videos of them have repeatedly gone viral.
The company, which has worked closely with the US military, was acquired by Google in 2013 as Android creator Andy Rubin was building up a team of roboticists for a project known internally as Replicant, which involved looking at how robots could be used for things like caring for the elderly and carrying out warehouse operations. But Rubin left Google in 2014 and Boston Dynamics didn’t fit with Alphabet’s strategy.
Last May, sources told Business Insider that Google was closing in on a buyer but months went by with nothing being announced.
“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 Raibert in a 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.”