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Sci-fi robots, the ones we grew up reading about and watching in the movies, are still largely in our imagination.

To the degree they are around, it's largely because of Boston Dynamics, a 25-year-old company that a lot of people call the coolest robot-maker anywhere. Where most robot-makers boast stiff and cute personal assistants and efficient mobile vacuum cleaners, Boston Dynamics produces running, jumping and falling hominoids that get back up, wow and frighten. Take a look at the video of Handle (above).

Which is why it's still strange that deep-pocketed Alphabet _ one of the most ambitious companies in the larger artificial intelligence space _ last week sold Boston Dynamics to SoftBank.

Is Alphabet being short-sighted? The markets seem to think so. Alphabet shares plunged 3.4% on Friday. A reflection of the general tech correction that day? Possibly. Except that Softbank's shares soared 7.4%.

The neat-and-tidy explanation: It's the work of Ruth Porat, Alphabet's brutally efficient CFO, sweeping out moonshot projects and units that, even if they are cool, stand very little chance of kicking out a practical, profitable product any time soon.

  • There is truth in that: Martial Hebert, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, tells me that Boston Dynamics robots display "fantastic locomotion." Its work — "so advanced and exceptional" — is showing the way to fast robots. Getting from there to a commercial product would be "a big win," he said.
  • But Alphabet — among the most prideful enterprises in modern business — clearly decided that the costs weren't acceptable.
  • Watch this Steve Jobs clip for why this is an important question.

Futurism's Dom Galeon suggests that it's Softbank with the vision this time: The deal fits Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son's aim of prodding along the Singularity, or super-human intelligence, by 2047.

Go deeper

22 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Kevin McCarthy's rude awakening

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Kevin McCarthy is learning you can get torched when you try to make everyone happy, especially after an insurrection.

Why it matters: The House Republican leader had been hoping to use this year to build toward taking the majority in 2022, but his efforts to bridge intra-party divisiveness over the Capitol siege have him taking heat from every direction, eroding his stature both with the public and within his party.

The next big political war: redistricting

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Democrats are preparing a mix of tech and legal strategies to combat expected gerrymandering by Republicans, who are planning to go on legal offense themselves.

Why it matters: Democrats failed to regain a single state legislature on Election Day, while Republicans upped their control to 30 states' Houses and Senates. In the majority of states, legislatures draw new congressional district lines, which can boost a party's candidates for the next decade.

53 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Vaccinations, relief timing dominate Sweet 16 call

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) speaks during a news conference in December with a group of bipartisan lawmakers. Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Vaccine distribution, pandemic data and a cross-party comity dominated today's virtual meeting between White House officials and a bipartisan group of 16 senators, Senator Angus King told Axios.

Why it matters: Given Democrats' razor-thin majority in both chambers of Congress, President Biden will have to rely heavily on this group of centrist lawmakers — dubbed the "Sweet 16" — to pass any substantial legislation.