By on May 30, 2016

Boston Dynamics Robots, Image Source: Boston Dynamics YouTube Video

You’ve probably seen one of its videos on YouTube. Its creations are nightmare fuel, mixed with a sense of wonder and intrigue. And for one particular automaker, its robotic inventions seem worthy enough to trigger the purchase of a whole company.

It is Boston Dynamics — a company born from the MIT leg lab that’s been developing quadrupedal and bipedal robots since 1992. And Toyota is heavily rumored to be purchasing the company from Google, according to Tech Insider.

Which begs the question: what does a car manufacturer want with a legged-robot company?

In order to understand the weirdness of this deal, one must understand the tenuous relationship between Boston Dynamics and its current parent company Google, or Alphabet Inc.

From Bloomberg:

Google acquired Boston Dynamics in late 2013 as part of a spree of acquisitions in the field of robotics. The deals were spearheaded by Andy Rubin, former chief of the Android division, and brought about 300 robotics engineers into Google. Rubin left the company in October 2014. Over the following year, the robot initiative, dubbed Replicant, was plagued by leadership changes, failures to collaborate between companies and an unsuccessful effort to recruit a new leader.

At the heart of Replicant’s trouble, said a person familiar with the group, was a reluctance by Boston Dynamics executives to work with Google’s other robot engineers in California and Tokyo and the unit’s failure to come up with products that could be released in the near term.

So it was reluctance on behalf of Boston Dynamics, reports Bloomberg, that sealed its fate at Google, but the latest report from Tech Insider sheds some light on why BD executives pushed back:

Tech Insider spoke to two former employees who said Google was pushing for a commercial robot that could help out around the house or office by 2020. It’s not too clear what exactly Google wanted the robot to do, but it would be comfortable around humans and easy to use for basic day-to-day tasks.

One of the people said Google wanted a robot that, like many of its products, was simplistic and easy to use. One way of executing that would be having it roam around on wheels.

Considering Boston Dynamics was born out of the MIT Leg Lab, asking employees to stop pursuing robotic leg research was just one of many requests that rubbed people the wrong way, the person said.

Emphasis mine.

Now, as a deal between Toyota and Google for the purchase of Boston Dynamics comes to a close — the “ink is nearly dry,” a source said to Tech Insider — the question above remains: what does Toyota want with a legged-robot company, especially when the Toyota Research Institute is, essentially, a wheeled-robot company?

There are many applications for legged robots at an automaker that don’t include consumer-oriented transportation. For starters, legged robots could be used in automotive plants in areas that have a high risk of injury. Or they could be used simply to replace expensive laborers.

Regardless of the reasons behind the deal, the founder and CEO of Boston Dynamics, Marc Raibert, will likely be welcomed with open arms (or legs?) by Toyota Research Institute’s CEO Gill Pratt. The two worked with each other at the MIT leg lab. When Raibert left the lab to found Boston Dynamics, Pratt took over where Raibert left off.

And maybe that’s the real reason behind the deal — bringing the men back together to collaborate on robot research.

After all, that’s all Raibert wanted to do at Boston Dynamics, but Google wanted a commercial product ready for private homes in five years.

Under Toyota, with $1 billion of funding for TRI over the next 10 five years, there will be no pressure to bring anything to mass market in such a short time.

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35 Comments on “What Does Toyota Want with a Legged-Robot Company?...”

  • avatar

    America has NOTHING to apologize for.


    • 0 avatar

      Veterans are commemorated on Veteran’s Day. Memorial Day is for those who went and never came back.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks for saying that, Doctor. I’m getting pretty annoyed at how Memorial Day (originally Decoration Day, a day set aside to put flowers on graves of Civil War dead) has over the last couple of years morphed into a second Veterans Day (they’re not the same thing, folks). Not to mention that first responders are starting to be included in celebrations. What the hell?

  • avatar

    Ask yourself why GM, Ford or FCA did not show any interest? Or is that like asking why no American car maker took a stake in Tesla? Daimler, Toyota and Honda did.

  • avatar

    What does Toyota want with a Legged-Robot company?

    To make robot chauffeurs who can drive a manual, of course!

  • avatar

    Maybe they want what an old company that made looms wanted with horeseless carriages:

    The Fyoochahh!

    Or sentient forklifts?

    • 0 avatar

      The latter.

      Toyota makes a lot of forklifts now.

      An autonomous one that can do warehousing without an hourly wage or human screwups?

      Powerful stuff.

  • avatar

    An autonomous robot is better than an autonomous car? Said robot could drive ANY car, as long as it has enough leg room.

  • avatar

    “For starters, legged robots could be used in automotive plants in areas that have a high risk of injury. Or they could be used simply to replace expensive laborers.”

    Seems like it in much the same way kiosks are taking over fast food joints – capitalists will quip that increasingly unsustainable wages and unproductive workers (what is sustainable? 2 or 3 bucks an hour and no benefits????)are driving the march toward robotic innovation but all this is sort of a natural evolution in the search for sustaining profit or increasing profit along with bringing higher quality goods at particular price to market. It is going to happen wages or not.

    Years ago Michelin automated much of their tire manufacturing process so that they could build plants all over the world and maintain a consistent or nearly consistent level in the quality of their product and people used where it wasn’t cost effective or possible to use machines.

    When you use a machine (a kiosk in the case of burger joint and a future assembly worker that is digitized) your sick calls go way down, wages are mostly eliminated and you mostly don’t have to worry about temper tantrums, pregnancies, and unhinged sociopaths planting pipe bombs all over the plant and blowing away coworkers because they had a bad day.

    I’m sure somebody will opine about how this is just the result of every lazy body demanding too much that was born outside the “greatest generation” and the slow decline that has resulted but had this same level of technology been available 70 years ago it would have been implemented long before hand high wages or lazy workers notwithstanding.

    The real question I suppose is what to do about an increasingly crowded world as workers are replaced with machines and it no longer makes sense to just pick up and move to another continent when the standard of living becomes to expensive to support.

    • 0 avatar

      Surprise… or perhaps not so surprising, Fortune Magazine reports “McDonald’s Says its Wage Hikes Are Improving Service”

      Bloomberg also reports “U.S. Companies, Try This: Raise Your Minimum Pay”

      • 0 avatar

        It’s no secret better wages attract better employees. It is also no secret that when consumers have more money from higher wages, that money goes back into the economy through increased spending.

        The propaganda of the horse and sparrow theory pushed by media giants owned by billionaires has successfully convinced generations of Americans to vote against their own self-interests and strangle the economy, in the name of work hard and you’ll get what you deserve and other such nonsensical platitudes. When the median income in this country per working individual is just under $30,000, how can we expect those workers to be a meaningful part of the economy? That’s HALF of all people who work, and they are working at a wage that keeps them just above water, let along allowing them to spend in ways that would stimulate economic growth.

  • avatar

    Perhaps Toyota wants to catch up to Honda. Honda has been developing humanoid robots for years, the latest of which is their ASIMO series.

  • avatar

    All the better to KICK GM’s ASS with, my dear !

  • avatar

    Toyota would probably use BD leg tech for their mobility branch. They have built a number of robot leg prototypes in the past. /pages/conv_default/image/k086.jpg

    I believe last year they showed off some models of full on mech suits too as part of their far future plans.

  • avatar

    American company cares only about short term results and Japanese company cares about long term results too. What a surprise!

    BTW what Google was expecting buying legged root company which has no expertise in wheeled robots? Does Google become a new MS?

  • avatar

    Wonder if bot legs gonna be smart enough to avoid walking hound poo into your office?

    • 0 avatar

      @joss Wonder if bot legs gonna be smart enough to avoid walking hound poo into your office?

      If it’s still warm, you can use a FLIR sensor to avoid it. Once it’s cold it gets a little tougher. I use a Lepton® LWIR (long wave infrared) camera and OpenCV.

      You could also tap into surveillance and map the recent locations where the dog was engaged in certain tell-tale circular patterns of movement. That might work better.

  • avatar

    Not really a serious discussion there. Is anyone seriously surprised why a Japanese company is interested in a robotics startup.

    The Japanese are leaders in robotic research industrial domestic and otherwise.

    I bet Toyota took the spare change under their couch to buy them.

    One wonders why the US car companies didnt take Boston.

    A more serious discussion would ask why Google is selling.

    Doesnt Honda/Sony have its own robotics program? Why wouldnt Toyota like to get in on this game? I suspect they are going with a Toyota van that has a robot assistant of sorts to get the older folk into the car since the avg. age in Japan is what? 61? and climbing?

  • avatar

    Naming your robotic development division Replicant is just ironically tempting fate.

    • 0 avatar

      Great catch. You need your replicant to open your Tannhauser Gat, light your way with C-beams, and clean up your tears in the rain.

    • 0 avatar

      Great catch. You need your replicant to open your Tannhauser Gate, light your way with C-beams, and clean up your tears in the rain.

      • 0 avatar

        Not to be racist —

        “You Nexus 6, right? —- “I make your LEGS!!!”

        • 0 avatar

          Not even remotely surprising. The industry seems remarkably tone deaf on naming these technologies. There’s a global AI network actually called “Skynet”.

          It seems we really are heading towards that brave new world.

          I fully expect to see robot soldiers on a defence grid before our children grow up.

  • avatar

    The best answer is “who knows” but personally, I think it speaks volume about Toyota’s commitment to research and exploring new technology/application. More importantly, I think it reflects their investor’s acceptance of long-term risk/rewards. Could it be that they are doing what American financial/industrial relationship was doing back in the 50s and 60s; as opposed to the more dominating short term financial gains that American companies are now subject to?

  • avatar

    A wheeled robot for the home isn’t a good long-term solution. Homes have stairs and sometimes obstacles to step over.

    Boston Dynamics also has a lot of defense work as well. One of the tasks in the latest DARPA Challenges was for a robot to climb into an unmodified vehicle and drive it. Some of the participants succeeded. That’s something you’re not going to be able to do with a wheeled robot.

    • 0 avatar

      “A wheeled robot for the home isn’t a good long-term solution. Homes have stairs and sometimes obstacles to step over.”

      Bingo —

      The Japanese are investing heavily in robotics to provide assistance to their increasingly aging population. They don’t have the demographics (with legions of lower-paid service/care workers) to take these jobs.

      I guess that can lead into a whole other can of worms discussion beyond “legged” robots.

    • 0 avatar

      Both R2-D2 and BB-8 have ways of ascending and descending stairs.

      • 0 avatar

        > Both R2-D2 and BB-8 have ways of ascending and descending stairs.
        …yet we never actually see R2-D2 climb stairs on-camera, or even get past bulkhead doors with a tall sill. And when he was in a desert or swamp, he always conveniently found a flat, hard-packed trail to roll on.

        • 0 avatar

          In Ep. II, in the scene filmed at the Plaza de España, you can see Artoo scaling the stairs by extending his legs, then tipping back to put his middle leg on the next step, then pulling himself up onto that step. There is a minor continuity issue, though, since it takes him a few seconds just to get up one step, but in the next scene, he’s all the way up the steps.

          But really, that kinda shows up in all the movies–Artoo was supposed to be a lot quicker on-screen, but the mechanical limitations of 1976 meant he could only go at a leisurely walking pace. Attempts to speed up his movement in-universe (most infamously, with rockets in Eps. II and III) were not met with much enthusiasm by the fanbase.

          • 0 avatar

            Heh – I just watched “The Force Awakens” on Blu-Ray (the popcorn is much cheaper)…

            The hollow-ball sound of BB-8 gingerly descending the stone steps in the old castle was amusing.

            I don’t seem to remember it *ascending* that stair — would have been interesting.

  • avatar

    The first thing I thought of is that it’s the cast of the third reboot of BBC’s TopGear. Since they’re Three Laws safe, you’ll never have to worry about one of them slapping a production assistant when the 3-in-One oil doesn’t arrive on time.

  • avatar
    John R

    Why wouldn’t Toyota want it?

    For a brief spell I worked at a materials distributor for investor owned utilities. After watching the video above the first time I could think of 7, maybe 10, positions at that branch that robot could replace given another one or two generations.

    Aside from industrial equipment sales Toyota could use robots like these within their own operations.

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