Subsidized Mass robot biz sold off
Two weeks ago, DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism published an extremely long and horrifying feature detailing the bizarre history of a decades-old Central Intelligence Agency research facility called the Scientific Engineering Institute. In it, we noted that robotics company Boston Dynamics now operates next door to SEI’s former location in Waltham.
Last week, it was announced that Alphabet, parent company of Google, finalized its sale of the robot maker, which prior to being bought by Google in 2013 was heavily subsidized by the US Department of Defense. Rumors had been circulating for more than a year that Alphabet was looking to sell Boston Dynamics—possibly to Amazon, or as began to look more likely, to Toyota. Instead, in a surprise move, a different Japan-based corporation, tech conglomerate SoftBank, announced last Friday that it would buy the company for an undisclosed sum.
Softbank, maker of a robot named Pepper that can “read human emotion,” is apparently stepping up its involvement in the AI sector. The deal with Alphabet also included the purchase of another robot developer, the “secretive” company Schaft which, like Boston Dynamics, competed in the 2013 military-sponsored “DARPA Robotics Challenge” and was acquired by Google that year. So what you basically have now is a private American company pumped full of our tax dollars to create war machines getting sold to a multinational based elsewhere. As noted in our feature, titled “Lobotomass” since the general public often forgets these things (and for other, more obvious reasons), between 2010 and 2014, Boston Dynamics secured more than $100 million in Pentagon contracts.
Boston Dynamics did not respond to a request for comment on our feature, which noted that Google was looking to unload the business. Last week, however, the company’s founder and CEO Marc Raibert offered a rare public statement about the sale to SoftBank.
“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,” Raibert said. “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.”
Masayoshi Son, SoftBank’s “eccentric” founder and CEO and Japan’s richest man, also commented on the sale.
“Today, there are many issues we still cannot solve by ourselves with human capabilities,” he said. “Smart robotics are going to be a key driver of the next stage of the Information Revolution, and Marc and his team at Boston Dynamics are the clear technology leaders in advanced dynamic robots. 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.”
Jonathan Riley is a contributing writer to DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and editor of the Morning Sun newspaper in Pittsburg, Kansas.