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Google’s AI Vision May No Longer Include Giant Robots

The sale of Boston Dynamics shows how the company is augmenting its approach to AI

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Good news for the deeply paranoid among us: If the apocalypse arrives via giant anthropomorphic robots, they probably won’t be bankrolled by Google. On Thursday, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced that it was selling Boston Dynamics, its premier robotics division, to the Japanese telco giant SoftBank for an undisclosed sum. The deal also includes a smaller robotics company called Schaft.

Boston Dynamics was less a moonshot than a sci-fi horror brought to life. Even before being acquired by Google in 2013, the 25-year-old company had already developed a Beast Wars–style squadron of robot predators with names like BigDog and WildCat, as well as a humanoid model called Atlas. The machines were often developed for the Pentagon under contracts with agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Google and the government both said the robots were being tested for disaster-relief scenarios, but that never stopped the stream of headlines describing them as “scary,” “nightmare-inducing,” or “evil.”

Whether Google’s ultimate plans were benign or nefarious, they never properly got off the ground. Both Boston Dynamics and Schaft were part of a months-long spending spree Google bankrolled to appease Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, who was looking to robots as his next frontier for innovation. But Rubin left Google in 2014, creating a leadership vacuum as the company struggled to get its various robotics acquisitions headquartered around the world to work in tandem. Under Rubin, Google reportedly had plans to launch a consumer robotics product by 2020, but that timeline seems in doubt now. (Alphabet still owns several smaller robotics startups that specialize in areas such as industrial manufacturing and film production.)

In the years since the Boston Dynamics acquisition, Google has shown that it doesn’t need to build a robot butler (or soldier) to create a future dominated by artificial intelligence. Machine-learning algorithms now guide most of the company’s products, whether recommending YouTube videos, identifying objects in users’ photo libraries, or whisking people around in driverless cars. The company is partnering with appliance manufacturers like General Electric so that people can control their ovens via voice commands to Google Home. And most ambitiously, at this year’s Google I/O, the company unveiled a suite of new products related to its machine-learning framework, TensorFlow. Developers will soon be able to make use of the same AI engines that power Google’s products to improve their own offerings via the company’s cloud-computing platform.

In the company’s ideal future, every human-machine interaction will be powered by Google, even if a specific app or appliance doesn’t have Google’s name on it. Terminator-style robots (OK, hopefully Jetsons-style) may one day be part of that vision, but the company can easily build an AI army with the products that fill our homes and garages today.