April 11, 2016      

TOKYO — Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, has unveiled a new prototype biped robot that can carry heavy loads, vacuum stairs, and tackle uneven terrain.

In a surprise move at the New Economy Summit (NEST) 2016 here on Friday, Japanese robotics lab Schaft Inc. showed off two units of the new robot. With two long legs on either side of a low-slung body, the robots evoke the boxy TARS from the 2014 science-fiction movie Interstellar.

As the audience watched in awed silence, the droids walked smoothly onto the stage amid a whir of servomotors. They casually strolled around Schaft manager Yuto Nakanishi, who gave a terse explanation. Schaft is owned by Alphabet‘s X Lab division.

“We’d like to use our bipedal know-how to serve society by realizing a low-cost, low-power, and compact life-size robot,” said Nakanishi. He did not elaborate on possible applications.

In a video presented by Nakanishi, earlier versions of the robot can be seen walking up stairs in a stadium, over rocks on a beach, up a hillside and through a snowy field. They also perform feats such as carrying a 60-kg (132-lb.) barbell and maintaining balance while stepping on a pipe.

In addition, the robots were shown using Roomba-style spinning brushes on the bottom of their feet while moving side to side vacuuming on steps in a staircase.

Nakanishi said the robot doesn’t have an official name, but one Japanese Twitter user quoted an acquaintance at Alphabet and said it’s nicknamed “Rob870.” The digits can be pronounced hanamaru in Japanese, meaning “flower circle,” which is a rough equivalent to the gold star affixed to children’s homework in the West.

The robots were demonstrated as Alphabet is reportedly trying to sell off Boston Dynamics Inc., developer of the AlphaDog and Atlas robots and one of the search giant’s most prominent robotics purchases. Possible buyers for Boston Dynamics, which is reportedly among the units suffering from management turnover within Alphabet, include Amazon.com Inc., General Dynamics Corp., Toyota Motor Corp., and Swiss company Demiurge Technologies AG.

Schaft keeps a low profile

Schaft, acquired by Google in 2013, was founded by University of Tokyo roboticists and rose to fame in the early stages of the DARPA Robotics Challenge to develop humanoid machines that can operate in disaster zones. The startup avoided press since then.

Nakanishi’s presentation came during a keynote on artificial intelligence (AI) by Andy Rubin, the onetime head of Google’s robot projects and now CEO of venture capital firm Playground Global LLC.

“Google just beat the best Go player with their AlphaGo,” said Rubin, describing how computer platforms tend to evolve every 10 years or so. “AI today is just at the beginning, but should the timing work out and everything go flawlessly, AI could be bigger than mobile and [the] Internet.”

Alphabet is also working on using AI to improve Google searches, combining machine vision and location services, and networking robotic arms for greater precision grasping random objects.

There has been a lot of speculation about Alphabet’s plans for robotics and AI, including self-driving cars.

Rubin thanked Alphabet for giving people a peek at Schaft’s ongoing research, but during a Q&A session, he declined to comment on where the holding company is now going with robotics in general.

An X spokesperson quoted by IEEE Spectrum said the presentation “wasn’t a product announcement or indication of a specific product roadmap. The team was simply delighted to have a chance to show their latest progress.”

About the author: Tim Hornyak is a freelance science and technology journalist based in Tokyo. Born in Montreal, Hornyak moved to Japan in 1999 and worked for Japanese news organizations before co-authoring guidebooks to Japan and Tokyo for Lonely Planet. He is also the author of Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots. He has worked as Tokyo correspondent for IDG News, producing articles and videos for websites such as Computerworld, Macworld, and Networkworld, and has contributed to media such as Scientific American, National Geographic News, and the MIT Technology Review.