Japanese telecoms giant SoftBank is acquiring two robotics companies from Google parent company Alphabet: Boston Dynamics and Schaft.
Japanese billionaire and SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son’s passion for robots has been well-publicized for over a decade. In 2012, SoftBank acquired a majority stake Aldebaran Robotics, the French company that has since created the interactive humanoid Pepper.
Although Pepper is widely seen as a significant step towards a genuine robotic companion, the ironic stumbling point is that Pepper can’t walk. Instead, it rolls around on a spherical base. That missing technology goes some way to explaining SoftBank’s interest in the work of Boston Dynamics.
A walking, talking robot companion
The acquisitions of Boston Dynamics and Schaft from Alphabet suggests that SoftBank is intent on taking humanoids to the next level. The Japanese telecoms giant already has robots that can talk the talk; the ability to walk is another matter entirely.
Fortunately, both former Alphabet companies have made huge progress in that department. Although Schaft’s technology has largely been kept under wraps, Boston Dynamics has arguably been more public than the powers-that-be at Alphabet might have preferred.
Reports have suggested that a sale of Boston Dynamics has been likely for several months – not because the technology doesn’t meet Alphabet’s standards, but because it’s seen as too terrifying and not commercially viable.
Boston Dynamic’s highly impressive and rather frightening fleet of robots takes inspiration from the natural world. The Atlas robot, above, is an intelligent machine capable of getting back up after being knocked down and navigating complex environments.
The potential military applications of Boston Dynamic’s technology are obvious, but SoftBank will be looking to harness the advancements for less intimidating projects.
“Today, there are many issues we still cannot solve by ourselves with human capabilities,” said Masayoshi Son, chairman and CEO of SoftBank, in a statement.
“Smart robotics are going to be a key driver of the next stage of the Information Revolution, and Marc and his team at Boston Dynamics are the clear technology leaders in advanced dynamic robots. I am thrilled to welcome them to the SoftBank family and look forward to supporting them as they continue to advance the field of robotics and explore applications that can help make life easier, safer and more fulfilling.”
SoftBank to tap unfulfilled potential
Google originally bought Schaft and Boston Dynamics back in 2013 as part of an expanding robotics division, but changes in leadership and differences of opinion are thought to have restricted the progress of both units ever since.
Boston Dynamics has also unveiled a string of agile robots capable of overcoming hurdles and climbing – two necesaary features for a genuinely useful domestic robot, that would need to navigate furniture and retrieve items from high shelves and cupboards. Schaft, meanwhile, has also been quietly working on bipedal robots, presenting its progress at NEST 2016 last April.
The value of the acquisitions has not been disclosed.