Google-owner Alphabet Inc. has agreed to sell robotics company Boston Dynamics to Japanese telecommunications and technology company SoftBank. Terms of the deal remain undisclosed, but news of Alphabet’s intentions to sell Boston Dynamics first surfaced back in March 2016. That was roughly two years after Android co-founder Andy Rubin left Google after he spearheaded a series of prominent robotics acquisitions, most prominently Boston Dynamics, for the search giant. That division, known internally as Replicant, was disbanded after Rubin’s departure, leaving Boston Dynamics in an awkward position.
“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,” said Marc Raibert, CEO and founder of Boston Dynamics, in a prepared statement. “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.”
That Alphabet has finally sold its most high-profile robotics subsidiary may signal an end to the company’s passing flirtation with the world of humanoid and industrial robots. Boston Dynamics, a 25-year-old company originally spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has gained a worldwide reputation as a leader in robotics engineering for its development of bipedal and quadruped robots like Atlas and BigDog.
The company has received funding from the US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and it pioneered techniques for helping robots maneuver real-world environments and adapt to complex changes in terrain. Its most recent development, shown off in a leaked video in February, is a jumping unit named Handle that combines both wheels and legs into a “nightmare-inducing robot” capable of advanced aerial maneuvers and obstacle avoidance.
Despite the steady march of Boston Dynamics’ robotics innovations, it appears Alphabet leadership didn’t quite know what it would ultimately do with the company. As part of an overall restructuring and cost-saving strategy set forth by Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat last year, the company has taken significant measures to slim down its experimental efforts and rein in its “moonshot” projects. Even prior to Porat’s hiring, it was clear Alphabet had mishandled its robotics ambitions — it was Astro Teller, the head of the company’s X lab, that disbanded Replicant in 2014, before Google was restructured as Alphabet, according to Bloomberg.