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Alphabet may ditch Boston Dynamics and its robot dreams

Frustrated with Boston Dynamics’ slow pace in building a marketable product, Google’s parent company Alphabet is apparently looking to unload robotics pioneer Boston Dynamics, which it acquired a little more than two years ago.

Alphabet is cutting its losses and looking to unload the company, according to a Bloomberg report. The company is known for its four-legged Big Dog and a slow-moving humanoid robot that became a video sensation.

Citing unnamed sources, Bloomberg also reported that Toyota Research Institute, a division of Toyota Motor Corp., and Amazon.com, which uses robots in its warehouses, are potential buyers.

Alphabet did not respond to a request for comment.

Google bought Boston Dynamics with just a few weeks left in 2013 as part of a wide-ranging shopping spree of robotics companies.

Boston Dynamics, while well known for its Big Dog and Cheetah robots, gained a lot of mainstream recognition when its 6-foot-tall, 300-pound humanoid robot, Atlas, was used in the multi-year DARPA Robotics Challenge .

Google, now Alphabet, has been working for several years on the robotics needed for autonomous cars, logging in thousands of miles on highways and city streets.

However, with Boston Dynamics’ work with DARPA and various military contracts, Google was picking up a robotics company a bit off center from its more consumer-oriented work.

Still, that leaves some wondering why Google decided not to stay with the Boston Dynamics work for the long haul.

“It’s hard to see why Google would get rid of Boston Dynamics so soon after purchasing them in 2016,” said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. “From what I can tell, it looks like there is a fundamental mismatch between Boston Dynamics’ management and Google’s, in terms of collaboration with Google’s robotics folks. Plus Google was looking for the Boston team to come up with saleable products sooner rather than later.”

If Boston Dynamics didn't meet an Alphabet-set goal to get a product available to market and start generating revenue, then the frustration level may have risen too high.

Mike Gennert, head of the Robotics Engineering program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said that if Boston Dynamics is for sale, a buyer stands to gain a big foothold in the robotics industry.

“Boston Dynamics has greatly advanced robotics technology since its founding in 1992,” said Gennert, who led WPI’s team in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. “I don’t think it will take 24 more years until their machines have serious commercial potential. Take the Atlas robot, for example. Another five cycles of improvement and you’ve got a really useful robot in five to eight years.”

The question remains, however, that if Alphabet sells Boston Dynamics, does that mean the company is backing away from robotics all together or simply offloading this one piece.

“If they're selling Boston Dynamics, it would seem to me they're moving away from robotics, as strange as that might sound,” said Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst. “I would think if Google was still interested in robotics, it would hang on to Boston Dynamics and possibly make another acquisition for shorter-term realization.”

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