Google's Boston Dynamics sale shows power of public perception

Walk around and it’s obvious to see machines have increasingly taken over many of the everyday functions that humans used to perform. Experts are divided about how big a part robots will play in our lives in the coming decades. Much has been written about this topic but seeing it can sometimes make it more terrifying. Boston Dynamics a tech spin-off from MIT is known for creating the “most advanced robots” in the world. It’s YouTube videos of agile robots walking around and doing amazing things gets tons of hits.

In 2013, Google was investing heavily in robotics and acquired Boston Dynamics (it is unclear for how much) Just last year, Boston Dynamics was reported by Time as the “coolest company Google owns” but now Google is selling it.

So what happened?

The latest YouTube video of Atlas, a humanoid robot could offer a clue. In the somewhat eerie video, Atlas is seen walking on snow, stumbling occasionally but keeping its balance. You then see it lifting up a box and placing it on a shelf and then being poked by a human with a hockey stick which strangely makes you feel sorry for Atlas.

The ‘official’ story by Google is that it is simply down to revenue. Alphabet reckons that Boston Dynamics is “unlikely to produce a marketable product in the next few years”.

But as the findings by Bloomberg suggests, it seems that Google’s parent Alphabet is really troubled by the public’s reaction to Atlas and does not want to be associated with a “terrifying robot”. As this internal email by Google’s director of communications and spokeswoman for Google X shows: “There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs.”

The press has been known to produce a lot of fear-mongering amongst the public with stories of robots taking all our jobs and now this YouTube video has suddenly made this possibility very real. It paints a very real picture where you can imagine tons of Atlas’ working in factories and doing our jobs, probably even better than us. 

Still, the question of how big a part public perception played in leading Google to cut ties with Boston Dynamics is unclear. The sale still seems odd given that just three years ago, Google was really investing in robotics and acquired seven tech companies to focus on creating the next generation of robots. It was Google executive Andy Rubin that led it with a “10-year vision” to make it work. Rubin then left a year later in 2014 and it seems his departure really affected the prospects for the robotics division as it led to “leadership changes, failures to collaborate between companies and an unsuccessful effort to recruit a new leader”.

As they say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and in this instance, it is likely that companies like Amazon or the Toyota Research Institute could be interested in snapping Boston Dynamics up. But the sale is interesting because although Google has often prided itself in engaging in innovative projects (Google’s driverless cars, balloons with wireless internet, life-extension), Google’s parent Alphabet has taken a stricter stance. Google may be richer than many but even great innovation comes at a price. And with no viable product from Boston Dynamics on the horizon anytime soon - it was time to cut the cord. Will Google regret it? Maybe, but at this point I don’t think Google is that bothered.


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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