Toyota is closing in on a deal to buy Google’s robotics company Boston Dynamics
Google is in talks with the Toyota Research Institute to sell its robotics division Boston Dynamics, a source familiar with the matter told Tech Insider.
A price for the deal has not yet been disclosed, but this person says the “ink is nearly dry.”
Tensions between Google and Boston Dynamics have been brewing since 2014, but a video released by Boston Dynamics in February of its humanoid robot, Atlas, was the tipping point for the separation, according to a Bloomberg article written in March. At the time, Bloomberg reported that Amazon and the Toyota Research Institute were possible acquirers of Boston Dynamics.
Google declined to comment for this story and Toyota did not respond to a request for comment.
A ‘friendly buyout’
The Toyota Research Institute was announced in November 2015 and began hiring in January. It was established to conduct artificial intelligence and robotics research. A former employee of Boston Dynamics referred to Toyota’s pending purchase of Boston Dynamics as a “friendly buyout,” considering it has strong ties to the robotics company.
Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, worked with Marc Raibert, founder and CEO of Boston Dynamics, at MIT’s leg lab — a lab that builds and studies legged robots that Raibert founded in 1986. Pratt took over the lab in 1992 after Raibert left the university to build Boston Dynamics.
Raibert still runs Boston Dynamics under Google.
Several Google robotics employees have also left the company to work at the Toyota Research Institute recently.
James Kuffner, the co-founder of Google’s robotics division, left the company in January to join the Toyota Research Institute. Joseph Bondaryk, the operation manager for Boston Dynamics under Google, also joined the Toyota Research Institute in January, according toLinkedIn.
Other notable moves include Philipp Michel, who worked as a senior roboticist for Google’s robotics division before moving to the Toyota Research Institute in February, a LinkedInsearch found. And Adam Geboff, senior systems and hardware engineer for Replicant, joined the Institute in April, according to LinkedIn.
‘Us and them’: Tensions mounting
Boston Dynamics was spun out of the MIT Leg Lab by Raibert in 1992. The US Military funded many of Boston Dynamic’s projects through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Google was never interested in making robots for military applications. Boston Dynamics was allowed to honor existing contracts with DARPA, but Google spun off DI-Guy, the creator of human simulation software for military purposes, into a new vendor called VT MÄK that still exists in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When Boston Dynamics was acquired in 2013, it was one of nine companies making up Google’s robotics division, internally called Replicant. Andy Rubin, the co-founder of Android, created Replicant with Kuffner in 2014. Rubin was considered the lead architect of Replicant.
A few employees told Tech Insider that Boston Dynamics employees appreciated Rubin’s fairly laissez faire leadership style because it encouraged them to continue the kind of research they were already doing and see where it took them.
“The impression I got was Rubin’s robotic companies were sort of allowed to get some leash,” one such former employee told Tech Insider.
But when Rubin left in October 2014, there was no real leader to bring the disparate robotics groups together. There was also a change in mindset as to how to run the different robotic divisions — rather than encouraging them to pursue their own research, Google began pushing for a consumer product.
“At the end of the day you have Google saying, ‘What are these guys out in Boston doing? We don’t even know, they’re just doing they’re own thing,'” the former employee said. “In 2015 when people wanted to put more direction and leadership on top of a group that was trying to keep itself isolated… that was a tension.”
A commercial robot by 2020
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Tech Insider spoke to two former employees who said Google was pushing for a commercial robot that could help out around the house or office by 2020. It’s not too clear what exactly Google wanted the robot to do, but it would be comfortable around humans and easy to use for basic day-to-day tasks.
One of the people said Google wanted a robot that, like many of its products, was simplistic and easy to use. One way of executing that would be having it roam around on wheels.
Considering Boston Dynamics was born out of the MIT Leg Lab, asking employees to stop pursuing robotic leg research was just one of many requests that rubbed people the wrong way, the person said.
Boston Dynamics began resisting the push to build a consumer robot. There was no real leader overseeing the different robotics groups under Replicant anyway, and Boston Dynamics could isolate itself easily in Boston with Google all the way out in Mountain Valley, California.
“At the end of day what I saw was a sense of us and them instead of a we — we weren’t part of Google, we were sort of a separate thing,” a former employee said.
The tipping point
YouTube/ Boston Dynamics
In late February, Boston Dynamics released a video of their humanoid robot, Atlas, the Next Generation, to show off its capabilities. But many people found the video unsettling.
“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,” Courtney Hohne, a director of communications at Google and the spokeswoman for Google X, wrote in an email that was published on an internal forum and obtained by Bloomberg.
Hohne asked her colleagues at Google to “distance X from this video,” writing, “we don’t want to trigger a whole separate media cycle about where BD really is at Google,” according to Bloomberg.
“We’re not going to comment on this video because there’s really not a lot we can add, and we don’t want to answer most of the Qs it triggers,” Hohne wrote.
To say the video prompted the sale of Boston Dynamics would be an overly simplistic analysis. But it did “sour the soup,” as one former employee said, considering the other tensions that had been mounting over the course of a year.
Perhaps integrating with the Toyota Research Institute, which is focused on research rather than commercializing a product, will serve as a happy ending for both Boston Dynamics and Google.