Saturday, June 10, 2017

Slow Saturday Special: A Softbank For Robots

"Softbank bets on Boston robotics firm" by Hiawatha Bray Globe Staff  June 10, 2017

Scooped by or tip from Bloomberg?

After a rocky three-year marriage, Boston Dynamics, the Waltham company famed for making robots that walk like people or run like deer, has been dumped by Alphabet Inc., parent company of Google.

But it’s a soft landing for Boston Dynamics, a company that has yet to translate its innovative technologies into profitable products.

Boston Dynamics fell into the arms of Softbank Group, a Japanese conglomerate that has recently been making billion-dollar bets on hot technologies ranging from satellite Internet systems to microchips.

Softbank also scooped up another Google property: Schaft, a Japanese maker of human-shaped robots. Financial details of the acquisitions were not revealed. But with 2016 net income of $13.2 billion, Softbank can certainly afford the investments.

I'm sure someone is getting the shaft here.

“I think Softbank has made a major commitment to the future of robotics,” said Daniel Theobald, cofounder of Vecna Technologies Inc., a robot maker based in Cambridge. “They understand that the world economy is going to be driven by robotics more and more.”

In 2013, about the same time Google bought Boston Dynamics, Softbank acquired Aldebaran Robotics, a French firm that makes human-shaped robots that roll on wheels, and are used as guides and greeters in Japanese retail stores.

But while Google is now backing off, Softbank is doubling down. With Boston Robotics in its portfolio, Softbank might someday offer walking robots that could stock store shelves, or provide home care for senior citizens.

With birth rates falling and average population ages rising throughout the world, there are big opportunities for humanlike robots to supplement the flesh-and-blood workforce. Besides, said Dan Kara, research director for robotics at ABI Research in Oyster Bay, N.Y., Boston Robotics excels at teaching robots to walk. “These are the world’s greatest experts on legged mobility,” he said.

Just told not enough jobs as it is, and are you sure they are not intended to supplant the flesh-and-blood-workforce? 

Don't worry, looters are safe for now, but I wouldn't bet on the future where systematic styles of investing that deploy machine-driven formulas as opposed to the classic model of relying on individual portfolio managers to pick stocks. Then you will face a challenge: do you sell out or buy in

According to Damion Shelton, chief executive of Agility Robotics Inc. in Albany, Ore., Boston Dynamics’ new owners had better be patient. “The technology right now is at the stage where self-driving cars were six years ago,” said Shelton, whose company will build just five or 1o walking robots this year, for sale to university research labs.

Agility is working on a security guard robot, and thinks it could sell several hundred a year. But the product won’t be ready for another two years. And it will be designed for relatively uncluttered areas, like walking the perimeter of a factory.

Remember that security guard job? 

Better yet, no chance of theft with a robot.

Designing a walking robot to move through a city is a much tougher task. “There’s lots of stuff to run into, there’s lots of things you don’t want to step on, like pets or kids, and it’s a relatively unstructured environment,” Shelton said.

Boston Dynamics was spun off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992, but has yet to bring a commercial product to market. For years, it subsisted on grants from the US military, developing machines like BigDog, a robotic pack mule that could carry ammunition and supplies into battle, and Atlas, a human-shaped robot capable of driving a car or climbing stairs, and designed for disaster relief missions.

25 years of money being poured into a black hole. Part of Don Rumsfeld's we don't know where $3 trillion went? Why was no one watching? How much money is truly being wasted out there?

Enter Alphabet, which acquired Boston Dynamics and several other small robot makers in 2013. The new owners backed away from accepting military contracts, and said they expected to turn robots into a profitable business in a few years. But three years later, nothing much had happened. “They bought all these companies and they didn’t do anything with them,” said Kara.

Meanwhile, despite its ample resources, Alphabet was pulling away from investments that didn’t promise near-term payoffs. For instance, it halted further expansion of Google Fiber, the costly effort to run high-speed Internet fibers to homes and businesses in major cities. And about a year ago, the company put Boston Dynamics on the auction block.


RelatedTim Cook made an appearance at the Boylston Street Apple store

Looks kind of creepy if you ask me.

Time to abdicate.