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SoftBank to Take Fearsome Robots Off Alphabet's Hands

By Richard Adhikari
Jun 10, 2017 10:40 AM PT
softbank-boston-dynamics

SoftBank on Thursday announced that it will acquire robotics company Boston Dynamics from Alphabet, parent company of Google. Softbank also agreed to buy robotics firm Schaft as part of the same deal.

SoftBank Robotics is the company's subsidiary that focuses on the development, sales and maintenance of humanoid and service robots.

"Smart robotics are going to be a key driver of the next stage of the information revolution," said SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son."

Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert and his team "are the clear technology leaders in advanced dynamic robots," he added. "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."

Good Fit

SoftBank has itself developed humanoid robots -- NAO in 2006 and, more recently, Pepper.

The Pepper robot supports Android. SoftBank Robotics has collaborated with Microsoft in a cloud robotics project using Pepper and the Microsoft Azure IoT suite; has launched the Pepper Partner Program to support developers of apps for Pepper for Biz; and runs its own Robot App Lab to create apps for consumers.

The acquisition "is a good fit, not only for SoftBank's Robotics group, but also ARM," noted Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

SoftBank "is already invested in robotics and has a great vision for technology and a track record for investing in critical technologies," he told the E-Commerce Times.

ARM, which SoftBank owns, "recently announced extensions to support artificial intelligence, and continues to improve its cores and intellectual property portfolio to support AI," McGregor noted.

The deal "could lead to significant advancements" in robotics, he said.

Why Alphabet Is Selling

Google has acquired a total of 10 companies in the robotics field, but it has not been smooth sailing. Android creator Andy Rubin, who for a time spearheaded Google's robotics effort, left to start his own firm. Google reportedly had problems finding a replacement.

Google folded its robotics team into the Google X experimental labs in 2015, when it restructured with the establishment of Alphabet.

The firms in Alphabet's robotics group -- which is known internally as "Replicant" -- reportedly weren't jelling. Some apparently were conducting research in unconnected areas and were failing to coordinate their efforts.

The Replicant companies, "have floundered under Google and Alphabet, despite their advancements and expertise in robotics and AI," McGregor said.

Rumors circulated earlier this year suggesting Google was seeking to sell Boston Dynamics. There was speculation Toyota might be a possible buyer.

"Robots were always kind of a stretch for Google," said Michael Jude, a research manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

"It isn't clear how Alphabet can leverage competency in robotics to increase its core businesses in local search, advertising or data services," he told the E-Commerce Times.

The sale is likely "an effort by Alphabet to rationalize its overall portfolio," Jude suggested.

What SoftBank Gets

Boston Dynamics makes bipedal and quadrupedal robots.

The software of its Atlas humanoid robot coordinates motions of the arms, torso and legs. The robot can manipulate its environment, travel over rough terrrain, and can get up if it tips over. Its hardware is 3D printed.

The company's Spot robot is the latest iteration of its four-legged robot, preceded by BigDog, Cheetah and LS3. It can traverse extremely rough terrain. Development of BigDog was funded by the United States Department of Defense.

Schaft's bipedal robot won the 2013 U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge.

"Softbank has been a big backer of robotics," noted Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

Japan is "working to corner that market," he told the E-Commerce Times, "so these firms are strategic to both SoftBank and Japan."


Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.


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