Why SoftBank Bought Boston Dynamics
June 09, 2017      

Google has ended one part of its foray into robotics with a deal to sell Boston Dynamics, maker of the BigDog quadruped and Atlas humanoid robots, to Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank Corp., known for its Pepper robots.

A SoftBank Group company will buy Boston Dynamics, led by CEO and founder Marc Raibert, as well as Japanese bipedal robotics company Schaft, from Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. under the deal. Financial terms were not disclosed.

“Today, there are many issues we still cannot solve by ourselves with human capabilities,” SoftBank Group Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son said in a release. “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.”

Watch: SCHAFT Bipedal Robot Climbs, Vacuums Stairs

“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,” said Son.

SoftBank investing billions in AI and robotics

It’s unclear whether SoftBank Robotics, which has sold more than 10,000 of its $1,800 Pepper humanoid robots since June 2015, will be the unit taking over Boston Dynamics and Schaft. Tokyo-based SoftBank said the deal aligns with its investments in “paradigm-shifting technologies and its vision of catalyzing the next wave of smart robotics.”

Boston Dynamics and Schaft don’t have commercial products yet, but they will add to SoftBank’s robot portfolio, which began with its 2012 acquisition of French robotics company Aldebaran Robotics, maker of the Nao humanoid robot.

In 2015, SoftBank invested in warehouse automation startup Fetch robotics and in 2016 it paid $32 billion in cash to acquire British semiconductor designer ARM Holdings, which has since branched out into making processors for devices such as surgical robots.

While promoting Pepper after its launch, billionaire Son said he was willing to sell the humanoid robot at a loss for years to enable it to gain some traction in the marketplace. He may take the same wait-and-see approach with Boston Dynamics and Schaft.

Son recently said at Mobile World Congress that the singularity will happen by 2047 and one computer chip will have a 10,000 IQ within the next 30 years. “I truly believe it’s coming, that’s why I’m in a hurry – to aggregate the cash, to invest,” said Son. “It will be so much more capable than us.”

Boston Dynamics Speculation Ends

Speculation has swirled for the past year about potential buyers for Boston Dynamics, including Amazon.com Inc. and the Toyota Research Institute.

The deal comes a year and a half after entrepreneur Andy Rubin left Google, where he headed the search giant’s robotics project. The co-founder of the Android operating system has since been leading tech incubator Playground Global. Some observers saw his departure as a sign that Google’s robotics strategy had gone adrift after its 2013 shopping spree in which it bought a group of robotics companies including Boston Dynamics.

“We at Boston Dynamics are excited to be part of SoftBank’s bold vision and its position creating the next technology revolution, and we share SoftBank’s belief that advances in technology should be for the benefit of humanity,” Raibert said. “We look forward to working with SoftBank in our mission to push the boundaries of what advanced robots can do and to create useful applications in a smarter and more connected world.”

The notoriously secretive Schaft, founded at the JSK Robotics Laboratory at the University of Tokyo in 2012, had been off the radar since Google picked it up in 2013, when it excelled at the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

Last year, Schaft co-founder Yuto Nakanishi made a brief public appearance in Tokyo at the 2016 New Economy Summit, where he showed off a pair of bipedal robots that walked around the stage. He described them as low-cost, low-power helpers that could carry up to 60 kg (132.2 lb.) and navigate stairs and rough terrain.