Late last month, Boston Dynamics posted a video showing a humanoid robot walking in the snowy woods without stumbling, standing back up after being knocked down by a human handler, and bending down to pick up boxes and then putting each package on a shelf. Tens of millions of people watched the videos and began talking about how far advanced robotic technology has come, as well as speculating about the implications for the human manual labor workforce.
The company, which had been acquired by Google in 2013, had previously secured millions of dollars of funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Marine Corps, for example, to create a four-legged agile robot that could haul cargo over rough terrain. Those creations include the quadrupedal “Big Dog” robotic mule and a smaller and quieter version called “Spot.” A third robot is the five-foot-nine, 180-pound biped shown in the YouTube videos last month, known as “Atlas.”
While the robots are promising, it now seems Boston Dynamics has failed to live up to aspirations. The first setback came when the U.S. Marine Corps rejected the Big Dog robot, saying it was too noisy for practical use. Now, Google executives have decided to sell Boston Dynamics after concluding that it’s unlikely the company can produce any marketable robot in the next few years, according to people familiar with the company who spoke to Bloomberg News.
The problem might be the type of robot. Use of service robots—lightweight machines that milk cows, for example—is growing, but the most valuable market for robots is clearly still the industrial sector, such as applications where large, robotic arms are used behind a safety barrier in factories. The industrial robot industry generated about $13 billion in revenue 2015 and a further $25 billion in software, controllers and systems engineering, according to Morgan Stanley, Bloomberg reports. In contrast, the market for domestic service robots was worth about $2.2 billion in 2014, according to the International Federation of Robotics.
Robotic arms aren’t the only robots used in manufacturing. The use of lightweight, collaborative robots that work side-by-side with humans on production lines, rather than behind safety cages, is growing considerably as well. Barclays estimates the collaborative robot market could be worth $3 billion by 2020 and more than $10 billion by 2025.
The problem with Boston Dynamics’s robots, say some industry observers, is that they need technology that doesn’t exist yet. Indeed, the software necessary to give them autonomy and purposeful intent is still being developed. While it’s unknown for sure just how long it will take to develop such software, there is speculation the Google execs think it may take a decade to develop Boston Dynamics’s technology into a commercial product.
It’s also worth noting that not everybody viewed the Atlas videos favorably, and there was some backlash from viewers that clearly was noticed by Google. After Boston Dynamics posted the videos on YouTube, Google’s public-relations team expressed concern that Alphabet would be associated with a push into humanoid robotics. Their subsequent e-mails were also published to the internal online forum and became visible to all Google employees.
“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,” wrote Courtney Hohne, a director of communications at Google and the spokeswoman for Google X.
Feedback about robots that seem “creepy” and concerns about possible loss of jobs for humans may well be valid concerns. However, the larger issue—for any tech company—is to determine which new jobs robots may be capable of performing as well as whether or not research and development should be continued to develop robots capable of performing such tasks.
What are your thoughts on new robot technology? Do you believe we will see autonomous robots in 10 years?