Jun 11, 2017

Why did Alphabet sell the coolest robotmaker on the planet?

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.

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