The big dog in robotics: Google buy Boston Dynamics

Interesting news in The New York Times this morning: Google has bought up the cutting-edge robotics firm, Boston Dynamics, for an unspecified sum (although, since even Snapchat thinks it’s worth more than $3 billion, presumably it’s quite a lot).

The firm, a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the one behind those YouTube videos of extraordinary walking robots that you would definitely run away from if you saw one running at you. (Some of them can run quite fast, too.)

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Google have apparently been buying up lots of robotics firms lately – eight in the last six months – with a view to some unspecified future robotics projects, under the command of the guy who ran the Android phone bit of the company for a while.

What is particularly interesting, though, is that Boston Dynamics has multi-million-dollar contracts with the US military’s advanced research division, Darpa, for the production of human-like and other robots. The company’s most famous creation, BigDog, was another Pentagon-sponsored project.

Google are going to honour Boston Dynamics’ existing contracts, understandably. But it’ll be fascinating to see whether they then drop all links with the military – after all, even if the “don’t be evil” thing was never the company’s formal motto, they did pride themselves once on being an ethical business, and becoming a de facto military contractor would take them into some morally complex areas. But defence is clearly the growth area for robotics, as I wrote recently. Will they be able to resist? (The NYT says Google has no plans to become a defence contractor “on its own”, for the record, although that seems to leave plenty of wiggle room.)

The thing with Google, though, is that they can and do just do stuff because they think it’s cool – they let all their engineers, for instance, spend 20 per cent of their time doing any project they like, and often (as with the brilliant Google Ngrams), great things come out of it. So it may be that that’s all this is: robotics is cool (and it definitely is), and it might be worth billions in a few years, and Google can afford to get involved. Maybe we’ll all get used to Google-branded spiderbots crawling in through our letterboxes to deliver shopping. I actually think that’s more plausible than the Amazon Drone story, anyway.

More by Tom Chivers

Flying robots playing ping-pong
Do we really want to give robots a licence to kill?
Amazon Drone: non-story of the decade

Listen to Tom on our weekly podcast



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