Is Google preparing to sell Boston Dynamics robotics division?

Five robots in front of Boston Dynamics sign
(Image credit: Boston Dynamics)

Google's parent company, Alphabet, is rumoured to be selling off robotics division Boston Dynamics because of internal tension and a fear of what people think about robots.

The research arms of Toyota and Amazon are both in the frame as potential buyers of the firm that produces bipedal and quadrupedal military and search-and-rescue robots, which Google bought in 2013, according to Bloomberg.

Two major factors are behind the decision to sell the unit, the publication reported.

One is discontent within Alphabet's overarching robotics division, Replicant (now part of Google X), and the other is a rising concern over the public's perception of advanced robots.

Boston Dynamics executives' reluctance to work with other robot engineers within Replicant lies at the heart of divisions within the group, according to a Bloomberg source.

These tensions came to a head in a November 2015 meeting of the division, the minutes of which, along with a number of subsequent emails, were accidentally published to an internal Alphabet-wide forum and subsequently handed to Bloomberg by an unnamed Google employee.

Jonathan Rosenberg, an advisor to Alphabet CEO Larry Page who chaired the meeting, said Replicant "cannot spend 30-plus per cent of [its] resources on things that take 10 years" and that "there's [a] time frame that we need to be generating an amount of revenue that covers expenses and [that] needs to be a few years".

Aaron Edsinger, director of robotics at Google in San Francisco, meanwhile said he had hit something of a brick wall when trying to work with the Boston Dynamics team on the production of a low-cost robot quadruped.

More recently, Google X, Alphabet's 'moonshot' division, has been trying to distance itself from Boston Dynamics as well, according to additional leaked documents. Indeed, Bloomberg claims that when the rest of Replicant was folded into Google X, Boston Dynamics was put up for sale.

According to the news outlet, when a YouTube video of the division's latest Atlas robot appeared online, Courtney Hohn, a director of communications at Google and a spokeswoman for Google X, asked her colleagues to "distance X from [the] video".

"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," Hohne allegedly said.

"We don't want to trigger a whole separate media cycle about where [Boston Dynamics] really is at Google," she reportedly added.

IT Pro has contacted Google for their response to the story, but had not received a response at the time of publication.

Jane McCallion
Deputy Editor

Jane McCallion is ITPro's deputy editor, specializing in cloud computing, cyber security, data centers and enterprise IT infrastructure. Before becoming Deputy Editor, she held the role of Features Editor, managing a pool of freelance and internal writers, while continuing to specialise in enterprise IT infrastructure, and business strategy.

Prior to joining ITPro, Jane was a freelance business journalist writing as both Jane McCallion and Jane Bordenave for titles such as European CEO, World Finance, and Business Excellence Magazine.