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SoftBank Agrees to Buy Boston Dynamics From Alphabet (bloomberg.com)
566 points by rayuela on June 9, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 215 comments



Notice that they also bought Schaft. That's significant. Schaft has better actuator technology; electrical, rather than hydraulic. They built a very nice humanoid robot a few years ago.

As I wrote last year when BD came up, the guy behind BigDog was Dr. Martin Buehler, who previously had an ambulatory robotics lab at McGill, and whose group built the first good running robot quadruped.[1] He's at Disney now. Raibert was primarily responsible for the hydraulics; his name is on the patent for that. But unless SoftBank wants to build giant mecha, hydraulic systems are too bulky. Also, Raibert is 68 now.

When Google bought both companies, I thought they'd put Boston Dynamics control algorithms on Schaft hardware. That did not happen, as far as anyone on the outside can tell.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11307168


They also bought ARM Holdings last year, makes you realize how big they are.


I also remember a large acquisition not long ago. SB is buying the future.


SoftBank also announced last month they raised $100B for Vision Fund, which is the largest in tech funding history https://techcrunch.com/2017/05/20/softbank-vision-fund-first...


They also bought Sprint in USA, and I am a loyal Sprint customer and praying they start delivering on the potential they could infuse into the USA mobile infrastructure.


I'm a SoftBank subscriber in Japan who regularly travels to the US for business. My Japanese phone just automatically switches to Sprint in America, which is extremely convenient for me.


I ended up switching from Sprint to Ting; same network, but 1/3 the bill (Advertised price was only 40% less, but Sprint tacked on nearly 60% in unadvertised fees).


What I never understood is what Google was going to do with this tech. Makes much more sense to sell it to the defense industry AFAICT. What does a search company want with a bomb dog robot?


This was the idea of alphabet - Google the search engine is one of the companies Alphabet holds. Google is an established company that can be milked but revenue has probably grown as much as it can.

To continue to show growth, alphabet planned to bet a moderate investment on entering new sectors with huge growth prospects, making medium term investments by buying leading companies and giving them the funding they needed to get ahead.

This is why Google no longer does stuff like Google X, 20% time etc - as a subsidiary they have got out of the innovation business, at least any more than other established companies.

Alphabet makes more sense when you read it as Alpha Bet - http://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/alpha.asp


Google still has 20% time. That is a myth. Google even has an internal startup incubator that allows participants to spend 100% of their time on 20% projects.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/miguelhelft/2016/05/19/google-c...


I was never allowed 20% time during my stint at Goog, was not a myth for me :)


They still have 20% time for a small set of people, but it's not nearly as widespread as it once was.


That's not true. Anyone has access to 20% time, the question is just whether or not it makes sense for individual people.

Source: I work here and take advantage of 20% time.


I have to ask out of curiosity: with Google having over 50,000 employees, are you in a place to say 'anyone' (sure, we're talking about developers, but still)?


Only because this question has been asked multiple times at TGIF (regular all-hands meeting).


>Alpha Bet

How did I not notice that earlier?


That's not accurate - Alphabet Inc didn't exist at the time that Boston Dynamics was acquired.


But Google was still investing in "other bets" that have nothing to do with search.


Now I understand their name, thanks.


Google has a bunch of "PR" projects whose sole purpose is to distract the public, their own employees, and, importantly, potential employees from the fact that they're 95% an advertising company. Where would you rather work, at a company which does ads, or a company that does autonomous cars, internet balloons and AI? Never mind that only about 2% of googlers actually get to do that. Most of the rest are just "temporarily embarrassed".


Every large tech company has very diverse interests. I mean even Microsoft doesn't just make Windows, they bought minecraft. They all know that technology changes quickly and tech companies can die overnight. Most don't even do what they started as - IBM doesn't make punch card tabulating machines, apple makes phones now, and Google does tons of stuff other than search. Imagine if Adblock became ubiquitous, Google's advertising business would be fucked. But many of their investments could adapt and live on.

I makes perfect sense for Google to invest in robotics. They are already heavily invested in AI which will benefit robotics immensely. And with the coming robotics revolution, whatever companies get in early stand to make billions.


No, they could not "adapt". Ballmer's "one trick pony" comment is as true today as it was years ago. They derive the vast majority (90%+ iirc) of their revenue from ads. If ads are fucked, Google will be fucked too.


If ads are fucked, entire segments of the modern world economy are fucked.


The economy will be fine. Maybe even better than before. People will just figure out how to charge for content on the internet, and everyone will be all right.


I believe they now make a ton from Android, especially app sales. But regardless they could still adapt by adopting a subscription model for search, youtube, gmail, etc. Ads just happen to be the best way of monetizing those services today.


Not if others are willing to offer worse versions of those services for free. And Microsoft/Amazon are perfectly willing, since they're already getting paid for other things.


You seem to denigrate being an "advertising company" as if all the work is exceedingly simplistic. I have a friend who recently moved into their ad division from a "sexier" one, and he said the amount of specialization being used in there is mind boggling. Which completely makes sense at the scale of Google, where some random team boosting your ad revenue by "only" .05% can be a worthwhile endeavor.


Oh no, it's not simplistic. I actually worked on it at Google for a few years. The backends are actually quite impressive and Rube Goldberg like. It's just not what starry eyed fresh grads want to do when they join, and it's most definitely something that Google wants to be way in the background outside shareholder meetings.


What does a search company want with autonomous cars?

The answer is that Alphabet doesn't see itself as a search company.


Rich boys that can afford ANY toys. Alphabet wraps the hobbies of Larry and Sergey. As long as the main part of the company makes obscene amounts of money, the board and stock holders dont care too much.


If you're trying to suggest that autonomous cars aren't a field with the potential to make a lot of money, you're in a very small minority.


What does a search company want with a bomb dog robot?

In a wide sense Google is an artificial intelligence company. Search is an AI application. No wonder they try to enter the autonomous robots sector, first with cars, then with that bomb dog.


It's an advertising company. And BigDog was a mule, not a bomb dog.

https://www.bostondynamics.com/bigdog

https://www.bostondynamics.com/ls3


> What does a search company want with a bomb dog robot?

I was under the impression originally that they were going to use it for "internal space" mapping (maybe not big dog, but something more like atlas, or maybe a smaller quad). This was something that Google Glass was supposed to be for, but of course we know how people reacted to that.

It kinda made sense at the time - sorta. There are places which the mapping cars can't go, and the "human backpack" mappers are few (I would imagine - that gear doesn't look lightweight, so I would imagine you need to be somewhat fit to take on that job) - and still can't go certain places (and I doubt they would be allowed in certain areas). But if they could get systems "inside" that can map but are unobtrusive, they could offer that new set of data to advertisers as well.

For example - though a dying area - think about malls, and what advertisers (and the stores inside as well) could do with the information gained. It's one thing to go to google maps and get directions to a place, but it stops at the "border" (of say a mall). You still don't know where that store is inside (or outside) of the border. You have to consult a map, or whatnot. Maybe you part on the opposite side of where it is, and you have to walk further, or whatever. Being able to map that in a finer manner would be useful for consumers and the advertisers.

Apparently I was wrong in my assessment. I guess it's a good thing I wasn't investing on anything based on that!


Google/Alphabet has a lot of cash and needs to do something with it. That something has to have a return comparable to their main business, ads. Otherwise, their stock goes down as overall ROI declines.

Since there are not many businesses that have the return on investment of being #1 in online ads, they're forced to look for "moonshots". Not that they've found any that make money on a scale comparable to ads.


My understanding was that Alphabet was going to license/sell the resulting products to the defense industry.


Why pull out of the DARPA competitions then?

https://www.extremetech.com/extreme/185570-google-finally-pr...


Ah I missed that. Too late to edit post but I stand corrected.


I highly doubt that. You're gonna need a citation there.


I think they noticed that these could not be massed produced very easily. They will not fit the model that google is trying to work with robotics.


That's the problem with being that big they could create 10 $1 Billion companies and their stock price would sit and blink at them.


> unless SoftBank wants to build giant mecha.

Deep inside you know that's what they want to build.


Is hydraulics the reason they are so noisy ?


I believe the noise is coming from the small gasoline engine used for power generation.


There was a subcontract to develop a small, light, quieter, variable-speed Diesel power plant for the thing. Unclear what happened there, but it doesn't seem to have been used with the LS3.

(The US military is all-Diesel. One fuel is used in everything from generators to aircraft. Gasoline tankers have no place on the modern battlefield, where there are no secure rear areas. The smallest standard military generator, a 2KW unit, weighs 138 pounds.[1] There's no suitable off the shelf powerplant.)

[1] http://www.deweyelectronics.com/assets/pdfs/spec-sheets/Rev-...


I'm a bit saddened by the sneer at Aldebaran in the article: '“SoftBank may not have struggled as much if they bought a better robotics company” instead of Aldebaran, Takahashi said.'

To be a bit hyperbolic: Aldebaran (renamed as Softbank Robotics) may not have struggled as much if they got bought by a better holding company.

Aldebaran was one of the first companies to commercially release a humanoid robot (NAO). I have one under my desk right now, it is an amazing combination of hardware and software engineering. You can program it using Python, C++ or a visual programming tool called Choregraphe. Novice users can write simple programs for the robot, however the robot is not very capable of doing more complicated tasks such as operating (physical) tools. It is however used as standard platform in the RoboCup (robot soccer) competition. The company is (was?) in the process of creating a human size robot called Romeo, which is being used by various research institutes in Europe and could be used for household tasks.

I wonder what would have happened if Google bought Aldebaran instead of Softbank!


> ... human size robot called Romeo ... could be used for household tasks.

This seems like a very interesting choice of name for a household robot... :-)


Boston Dynamics robots seem an order of magnitude further ahead than Aldebarans'. Aldebaran has these tools available because their business is selling these robots who can do tricks and are easy to program, while BD seem to push technology and make mobile robots useful. There's a mistake in the article, a Pepper robot is around 15k not 1.6k.


NAO is already used in real life [0] in a use-case I could never imaging: helping elderly people with fitness exercises. Apparently, they are selling like hot cakes to Dutch care homes so the human can keep an eye out on the people.

[0] https://youtu.be/fSQ-V8ipKn0?t=3m28s (in Dutch, sorry)


I'm not sure if the price in the article is wrong. NAO costs between 5k-15k, but Pepper uses much cheaper hardware and is sold at a loss so it might be possible to buy it for 1.6k.

Like you mentioned, Boston Dynamics and Aldebaran have different goals. If Google however is interested in making a household robot then I think Aldebaran would have been more suitable for them. Pepper and NAO have actually been used in public places like hotels and shops, but would you imagine one of Boston Dynamics robots being used there?


Well, Aldebaran sells the Pepper robot through it's partners. I know because the company where I work bought 2 Peppers with around 15k each. I've been told it's around the same price in Japan, the difference is that there you pay a small sum at the beginning but then you pay a monthly subscription.


That's incredible. I've seen the robot everywhere in Japan and it's generally regarded as completely useless. It makes sense taht it's a subscription model then,


When you're talking to someone at a SoftBank store and Pepper rolls up to rudely interrupt...it makes me laugh every time.


It seems like you are right, their business model had me fooled! The robot costs around 1,200,000 yen (roughly 10,900 dollars) for both the robot and the three year service contract.


Since this year, Aldebaran/SoftBanks's Pepper is going to be used in RoboCup@Home as well, as a standard platform, besides Toyota's HSR.


I've been talking with some people in my lab about that, it seems like a really interesting competition. I'm really curious to see how Pepper will be performing!


I'm also very curious, but from what I've heard, Pepper's manipulations capabilities are lacking.

The challenges for Pepper focus more on Human-Robot interaction, which it is made for of course.

The Open Platform robots and HSRs have to do tasks like store groceries and set+clean a table, which require much more manipulation skills


Ah yes, I've had the same issue with NAO. One of the best ways to grab an object (water bottle or box) seems to be to do a "hug grasp".


Reading this article, it seems like it may have been oversold when it came out. They claim there was a culture clash between the Japan/French offices which may have created a disconnected product strategy.

I don't doubt it was an excellent robotics platform that has survived among niche markets, but the critique of the company regarding Pepper as a product is definitely justified.

Would Google have even lanuched Pepper if they acquired the company? It seems that SB was in a rush to push out a humanoid product which probably gave them practical experience quickly with real use-cases. That is basically the opposite of Google's strategy where they only release sure-things with large markets. They don't seem to like experimenting in the marketplace the way Pepper seems to have done.


HN was saying that Google acquired Boston Dynamics specifically to dismantle it.

Thoughts?

This was more than a random HN comment. There seemed to be several persuasive reasons why Google would do something like that.

Note that three years ago, the general sentiment was that Boston Dynamics was pretty scary: https://hn.algolia.com/?query=boston%20dynamics%20google&sor...

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7103433

"Technically, since their acquisition Boston Dynamics, Google is indeed in the business of war robots: http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/google-buys-major-military... "

Is there a chance that Google stayed ahead of the curve and prevented Boston Dynamics from pursuing that?


This is nerd fever dreaming conspiracy bullshit, if they were really building such scary capable war machines for the defense department they would have been bought long, long ago by a big defense contactor (and likely that would be the last we'd publically hear about it!).

Fact is that Boston Dynamics does one thing, really, really well engineered dynamic locomotion. From what I understand there's very little ML/AI to it, just really good modeling and engineering.

However, no one has quite figured out exactly where this technology will be most useful or practical in the near future. Even (maybe especially) when they were owned by Alphabet.


> Fact is that Boston Dynamics does one thing, really, really well engineered dynamic locomotion. From what I understand there's very little ML/AI to it, just really good modeling and engineering.

as someone who did a bit of graduate research in that area, i would debate the "really, really well engineered" part of that statement. they brute-forced the engineering and developed energetically expensive machines that were great as demos but not practical as products. compare how long one of their robots last vs any legged creature of comparable size, and the poor energetics are obvious.

i would speculate that their company was a bet that battery packs would become light enough yet have a high enough energy density that it's robots could one day become viable products, but it doesn't seem like they're winning that bet.

that's in contrast to the segway, which was a bet that computing power was fast enough to dynamically adjust and balance human scale motion with high dynamic stability. they won the technical bet, but still lost the productization bet.


The energetics of the robots are constrained by size, weight and power requirements of the components on the market. As such sure, mechanical walkers will always be much less energy efficient than wheeled vehicles of the same era. Their competition on the rough terrain however is not Segway but flying drones, which are much less energy efficient than walkers still.

There isn't any particular inefficiency in their walker balancing implementation.


but that's just it. the design presupposes an industrial mindset of motors and gears and pistons and rigid metal structures. it presupposes active control and computational power. it presupposes an unlimited energy supply, as would be found in a manufacturing plant.

but if we just look around, we find a huge array of locomoting, self-contained, relatively energy efficient beings to draw inspiration from.

for example, the tendons and muscles in your leg can return as much as 40% of the energy expended in locomoting. and your legs include passive mechanisms (like how your knee joint locks and the alignment of the cruciate ligaments inside it) to keep you mostly upright without a lot of active control.

nature has ingenious solutions to learn from and take advantage of.


Can you suggest another company that produces legged platforms with similar capabilities and better energy efficiency?


Any mule or horse rental company.

http://www.sombrero.com/trips/hunting/


I still don't understand the commercial value / applications of legged platforms to begin with. What are people using these for outside of hobbies, wooing government reps with deep pockets, and novelty?


Humanoid robots can fit into existing environments without extensive adaption. And humans have legs.

Irrelevant in a factory, where you can adapt things as much as you like - but crucial if you envisage people sending robots to environments they don't own - like a robot carer helping Grandma go to the store.

Needless to say, the profitable applications for this aren't especially short-term, so the ROI for this research is hard to predict.


The store Grandma is going to is probably already wheelchair accessible, so a wheeled robot would work fine.


I'm sure that's the case where you live, but where I live our public transport isn't 100% disabled-accessible.

If you prefer, you can substitute "Like a robot delivery driver, who must deliver to flats without lifts" or "Like a robot cop, chasing truant teens through a mall" [1]

[1] http://pbfcomics.com/comics/truancy-bot/


Fwiw we already have mall cop robots in California: https://www.theverge.com/2017/4/26/15432280/security-robot-k...

They cost about $7/hr each to employ (~$62k annually since they're 24.7): https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/knightscope-robots-i...


heh... it was springbreak


They briefly convinced the Army/Marines that they could make electric/hydraulic mules to assist soldiers in carrying their gear in terrain without roads. But they were too loud - at that point, might as well insert troops/material by helicopter or use horses/mules. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/military-robots/...


Seems like a classic case of poorly chosen requirements. Someone specced a robotic mule with such-and-such range, carrying capacity and features, and forgot to add 'also must be quieter than weed whacker'.


Stairs? Or any other rough terrain where wheels are insufficient.

A robotics mentor once told me "just use bigger wheels" for rough terrain rather than legs and fancy control algorithms. But stairs are particularly difficult for wheels. House bots will almost certainly need legs to maximize utility. Unless they are so cheap you can get one for every surface.


> wheels are insufficient

Tell that to these guys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1apqfrJYwk. I think one day we have have two wheeled robots with these kind of capability.


That is badass. And energy intensive. I do think we will have legged/wheel hybrids rolling for efficiency and walking/hopping/etc for the difficult parts. He was certainly using his legs to perform those maneuvers. Wheels only can't bounce up. Wheelies, but not the hopping part. Wheelies + AWD may do it though. Good perspective. Thank you.



It's hard to change the stance on a wheeled vehicle, I think that agriculture might be one domain where a legged platform could develop an advantage (if it were sufficiently energy efficient to begin with, wheels really are the greatest human invention).


Legged for agriculture, to handle uneven terrain? Outside of reforestation, I don't see how it can be a significant advantage? In soil-based growing, one needs to maintain the soil/ground and making/keeping it flat becomes a relatively minor point. For soil-less (hydroponics etc), I'd expect the whole 'field' to be automated, possibly with the produce moving instead of moving to the produce. This how modern salad farming happens for instance.


> Legged for agriculture, to handle uneven terrain?

That's one, and also a much smaller footprint than a wheeled vehicle.

> This how modern salad farming happens for instance.

And mushrooms too.

Mushrooms too.


One thing I keep in mind is that handwaving, overly dismissive criticisms tend to stem from the need to feel superior rather than actual shortcomings of the product.


Maybe there's still merit to BD's approach. The rule is: first make it work, then make it good, then make it fast (i.e. optimize). It's probably easier to find plenty of ways to incrementally improve on a working platform than to dream up those improvements completely from scratch.


To me though a better approach would be:

1. wheeled sidewalk robots. 2. wheeled robot with arms 3. walking robot.

Still incremental just have sellable robots the whole time.


Their newest robot, the one with wheels for feet, is quite efficient. You need legs to traverse complex terrain. Adding wheels for efficiency after you've developed decent legs just makes sense.


The military version, the Legged Squad Support System, was tested by the USMC at Quantico. They decided not to buy it. Too noisy for combat, too hard to fix in the field, not that useful to a Marine squad.[1]

The US Army was also trying some exoskeleton designs. The Raytheon XOS [2] was quite capable but needed an external power cable. The Lockheed HULC [3] finally reached a self-powered configuration, but battery life was too short.

None of these will be fielded. Maybe the next generation.

The Army's next big "mobility" buy is a replacement for the HUMMV, an armored truck from Oskosh. Smaller than the MRAP, but a comparable level of protection. Boring, but useful.

[1] http://www.military.com/daily-news/2015/12/22/marine-corps-s...

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V87lSB5XWVs

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kat8I5UM_Vs


Strapping a high-density power source to a man (or machine) in a bullet ridden environment sounds like a terrible idea.

I imagine we'll see progress on this front when there's a breakthrough there. Barring that, you get some analog of the rocket equation: power source + fuel requires armor (for survivability) which means more power and fuel is required, etc etc


As the volume of the battery grows larger, the battery's mass grows cubically while the mass of the armor shielding it grows quadratically. It's nothing like the rocket equation problem.


I suppose you can cheat it this way: hide the power source behind just enough armor that when a soldier gets hit with something powerful enough to pierce it, he'll most likely be dead anyway.

Another avenue to cheat: put extra armor just around the fuel/power source.


I've seen enough action movies to know that the future is nuclear fuel cells the size of a hydroflask.


In future Boston, a miniaturized nuclear power cell may be able to power a whole building for 500 years, but it can only handle a mechanized exoskeleton for about 45 minutes.


And there is an additional settlement that needs saving?


> other avenue to cheat: put extra armor just around the fuel/power source.

Wouldn't that make it heavier and take away the advantage of having an exoskeleton in the first place?

I imagined something like the Soviet "Shtrafbat", battalions made up of prisoners and other undesirables.

Of couse the shtrafniks will die in a terrible conflagration when they bump their battery, but think of all the expensive equipment taxpayers can buy for them, and a use for the prison population! Of course the prisoners will be rented to the state for a nominal fee, and there will be compensation to PrisonCo when their property is damaged. It's a win-win-win!


No arguments but payloads and ammo are also things that enter bullet ridden environments.


Rifle ammo isn't explosive for the most part. For example, if you left it in a fire, it would cook off. The bullet would stay where it was more or less and the case would split open and fly a little ways.


Actually a pretty interesting theory, though it seems a bit like a futile pursuit since another company can just spring up to take their place, or their employees can simply leave.

It seems more likely that when Andy Rubin was placed in charge of Google's hardware, he made a string of robotics acquisitions in a long term bet on a household robot of some sort. In a short period of time, Google acquired 8 robotics companies, many of which specialized in various forms of locomotion which could be explored in parallel to find an optimal form of movement through unstructured environments.

These startups seemed to go nowhere since Rubin left not too long after the acquisitions were made. Hard to say why Rubin left at the time for sure.

So it seems more like Boston Dynamics were acquired for their incredible robotic locomotion, and Google's ambition to make a household robot (code named replicant, which is the term for an android in Blade Runner. By now I assume Rubin is a big fan), would fit with the fact that Boston dynamics adapted a lot of their previous efforts into designing lightweight low range robots suitable for navigating indoor unstructured environments.


This makes the most sense. Andy had leeway and some grand plan with regards to robotics but then something happened; he left and the units were left without a great unifying vision and thus more or less directionless and the new management didn't have a new vision for them so they looked to divest from them.


> Hard to say why Rubin left at the time for sure.

Rubin worked hard on Android and was ready to release to public. Then Jobs called Google pals and they all got in one room. Jobs called him "fucking dickless asshole" and that he ripped off many features of not-yet-released iPhone. Rubin know it was bullshit, but Jobs demanded plenty of functions to be removed. To his suprise, Google bros did bow to Jobs.

Rubin never had the same level of respect for Page or Brin ever since.

More to read: http://www.businessinsider.com/steve-jobs-on-android-founder...


> [Steve Jobs said] ... that he ripped off many features of not-yet-released iPhone. Rubin know it was bullshit, ...

Except that the link you posted seems to disagree with your assessment:

"Ethan Beard, an early Android business development executive, told Vogelstein: "We knew that Apple was going to announce a phone. Everyone knew that. We just didn't think it would be that good."

Google had phone software that was ready to launch at the end of the year, but it looked awful relative to the iPhone, so it was all scrapped and delayed. "What we had looked so ... nineties," an Android engineer said."

Under the direction of Rubin, Google scrapped their independent phone effort and started from scratch to try to match the iPhone feature wise, even though Page and Schmidt had promised Jobs privately that they wouldn't copy the iPhone.


Its Japans destiny to create replicants. Quite frankly, This aquisition is no surprise.


Japanese have a "national trauma" from Boston Dynamics - everything they invented in robotics Boston Dynamics brought to perfection, beating them in their own game. Happy now, they will be. Rejoice Hiroshi Ishiguro, he will. Walk Geminoid naturally, it will.


Actually as soon as I saw the headline, and knowing that SoftBank is Japanese, I was thinking of Gigantor and Astro Boy!!


.


You're thinking of Hugo, not Andy.


Rubin was married long before he left Google. He also has couple of kids now.


Rubin was married before Google bought Android, so that doesn't make any sense.


This is complete nonsense. The only sense in which Boston Dynamics is building "military" robots is that no one other than DARPA was willing to fund the development of these expensive toys. They have no real military use.

Andy Rubin and Larry Page were going to build "household helper" humanoid robots - no really, that was the grand vision - but it all fell apart.


I don't remember that sentiment.

It sounds like general fud against google but back then people had less to worry about.

Given the current political climate I would actually welcome a robot dystopia. as long as the robots were running it. not the politicians.


We assume that some horde of evil robots would put us out of our current misery faster and with greater efficiency than the powers that be, but what if the current powers replaced themselves with highly durable robots crafted in their own image, programmed to carry out their policies in absentia?

What if they were programmed to maximize our current pains?


> I would actually welcome a robot dystopia. as long as the robots were running it. not the politicians.

OK, but can I program the robots?


Hmm, do you frequently fail reCaptchas? If so, then yes please do.


Bought it, got all the secrets, all technology, software, made connections between key people, possibly made the company dependable on Google technology then sold it. Sounds like a perfect way to handle this.


I would hope so. Google's positive image has already declined significantly in the past few years due to its relentless chasing of more advanced tracking and data mining of user data. Becoming a country that sells war robots not just to the U.S. but also Saudi Arabia and others like it would've made me, and probably others, like it a lot less, too.


And equally importantly - how can we:

1) Establish consensus in favor of disrupting and retarding any movement toward war robots (or perhaps even coming to a more affirmative defense of the three laws)

2) Carry out the direct action associated with #1 above.


Another top HN news item today is that Andy Rubin's new startup, "Essential", raised $300m today.

Fun fact and by coincidence, Andy Rubin's last official gig prior to this startup was head of Google's robotics division and oversaw Boston Dynamics.

Larry Page convinced Rubin to run the division after moving Sundar Pichai (Now Google's CEO) to takeover the Android project.

And so the tech world turns!

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Rubin

Edited per comment below for clarity


Quoth the Tao of Programming:

7.1

A novice asked the Master: "In the East, there is a great tree-structure that men call 'Corporate Headquarters'. It is bloated out of shape with vice presidents and accountants. It issues a multitude of memos, each saying 'Go Hence!' or 'Go Hither!' and nobody knows what is meant. Every year new names are put onto the branches, but all to no avail. How can such an unnatural entity exist?"

The Master replied: "You perceive this immense structure and are disturbed that it has no rational purpose. Can you not take amusement from its endless gyrations? Do you not enjoy the untroubled ease of programming beneath its sheltering branches? Why are you bothered by its uselessness?"


The master doesn't know self-balancing trees?


The wheels move the tank but they do not steer it.



It was hyperbole.

I never knew tank steering systems could be so interesting, though.


You know how someone who's an expert in field X will sometimes assume that they can tackle problems in unrelated field Y and do just as well as the experts in Y? Only to be humbled by the experience? Well, robotics is Silicon Valley's Y.


Silicon Value has a lot of Ys.


At least they try. And honestly, the whole anthropomorphization or SV is silly. (How [some] people attribute arrogance to all startups and all of SV.)


Cars and banking are another. Also not being stereotypes.


https://www.xkcd.com/1831/ sums it up well.


What would be robotics' Silicon Valley?


All the big robotics companies are in Tokyo, to quote Wikipedia:

>The Robotics industry is more important in Japan than any other country in the world. Japan employs over a quarter of a million industrial robot workers. In the next 15 years, Japan estimates that number to jump to over one million and they expect revenue for robotics to be near $70 billion by 2025.[1]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_robotics#Japanese_rob...

When in Japan I've interacted with robots in a shopping mall: they had replaced their information stands by robots with ipads, so you could either ask them a question (didn't work due to the mall's noise) or just enter the relevant information on their belly's iPad-like devices.


Though that this was a robot (or just humanoid shaped) in the mall is just a cultural artifact. A touch-screen info panel in a western place has the same (or better) functionality, just without the sentiment.


Japan is really big in industrial robots but I haven't seen as much out of there in terms of intelligent robots that sense and respond to their environment.


SONY AIBO.

'In 2006, AIBO was added into the Carnegie Mellon University Robot Hall of Fame with the description "the Sony AIBO represents the most sophisticated product ever offered in the consumer robot marketplace."'

From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AIBO


Reminds me of when all the advanced cell phone development was in Tokyo....


There seem to be a lot of robotics companies here in Boston. Boston Dynamics, iRobot, Amazon Robotics, Rethink Robotics, and a bunch of startups like the one I work at.


You mean what would be robotics' Y?


Pittsburgh


From that link:

'Rubin also went to SoftBank Group Corp. and negotiated a deal to include Essential in the firm's nearly $100 billion technology fund, but the investment was nixed after Apple joined the fund, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. At the Code technology conference last week, Rubin confirmed the SoftBank talks and said the deal didn't happen because another investor that was a potential rival joined the fund and would have become an Essential backer. He didn't name Apple. "I just went to other investors," Rubin said. "I'm lucky to have good support from people that want to support these crazy, big, audacious things."'

And so the tech world turns :)


Masayoshi Son, the founder of Softbank, has raised a $100 Billion fund to invest in, among other things, the singularity. I'm sure the ultimate plan for Boston Dynamics is to build robotic/cyborg parts that will augment humans. I know this sounds a little out there but Masayoshi Son is a serious visionary and plays the long game - e.g. Softbank's 300 year vision plan.


It's crazy as an American when I realized how old some Japanese companies are.

This hotel has been operating since 705 AD: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nishiyama_Onsen_Keiunkan

Planning for 300 years doesn't seem so insane in context.


If you work for a robotics company people will always ask you if the things you're creating can be used for cybernetics but really that's never the point. The problem Boston Dynamics is solving is much harder than human augmentation in that they have to make their robots respond to the environment. And they have no expertise at integrating with human nervous systems. And the remaining bits are also different but not as fundamentally.


If I buy ordinary shares in SoftBank am I distantly investing in the vision fund. I.e is the vision fund manager as part of SoftBanks core assets?


I've seen this #100B investment being used in multiple places now- Trump creating jobs in US- Softbank, Trump getting investment from Saudi Arabia- Softbank. investing in Robotics- Softbank.


Son is heavily promoting this Vision Fund right now. It's a big vote of confidence in his ability to buy and build wealth. He has support from Saudi sovereign funds, Apple, Qualcomm, etc. He's a guy who has lost huge and come back bigger than ever. Totally fearless. He once had $70B on paper, lost almost all of it, and recovered due to his stakes in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan. If Asia Has a bright future, he's definitely Going to be part of it.


Monica Anderson had an interesting post on this a while back. Essentially relating the Boston Dynamics sale to a clash between the deep learning approach at Google, and BD's lack of. Here's what she said:

Google wants to sell (now sold) Boston Dynamics, a robotics company they acquired in Dec 2013. People are speculating why, and some claim this is because of a "culture clash".

I no longer work for Google so what follows is pure speculation.

Boston Dynamics (BD) are very successful pioneers. But their algorithms are not based on Deep Learning (DL) principles. And Google is leading the world in Deep Learning and can apply it to anything they want, including robotics. DL based algorithms do not provide a complete robotics solution today but there is wide agreement that this is the best path forward for the field. Why is this important? The difference is robots that can walk vs robots that can dance ballet. The goal is "graceful locomotion" which will be an order of magnitude more adaptive, more energy efficient, and faster than the current generation of robots.

I am suspecting this is part of the culture clash. Imagine a meeting where Google comes to BD staff and says "we want you to toss out all the software you have written, retrain your engineering staff to use DL and other Holistic methods, and create a new generation of robots capable of learning rather than being programmed"... then I can see BD staff saying "Ahem. That'll take a few years". And Google might then say "Forget that".

Changing one person's mindset and stance from Reductionist to Holistic methods is a multi-month to multi-year effort; I have tried that and have rarely succeeded. Now imagine a company's worth of engineers that need to do that switch. It might be much better, cheaper, and faster to start a company from scratch and hire a more receptive crowd of engineers. And seed them with Googlers that already drank the Holistic Kool-Aid.

The hardware solutions BD created is know-how and intellectual property that Google currently owns since they own BD. When they sell off BD they could exclude the key patents or sell them as non-exclusive licenses. Which means Google could start a competing robotics company, use the BD patents and hardware know-how, and add a Deep Learning based software stack to run that hardware much faster than they could turn BD around.


I doubt that the billion's dollars business decisions are taken because of the programming models of the products.


PHB (2000): "I just went to a conference. From now on, everything has to use Java."

PHB (2017): "I just went to a conference. From now on, everything has to use machine learning."


Agreed. In the beginning Google explored a variety of robotic approaches. And now they are pruning the less effective ones.


I find myself being very skeptical about robotics' use in society. I think robotics will splinter off into many different specifically designed forms. the "irobot" dream of a humanoid robot doing all the menial tasks that humans don't want to do will never happen. Instead, there will be robots designed for specific tasks, because that specific design will be better for that purpose than any generally designed robot will. Also, AI will solve most of the use cases that i see robotics used for and it will not require the expensive electronics and manufacturing required.


Japanese are exact opposite. They have extreme love of robots and are trying to put them everywhere. (Maybe caused by all the childhood robot cartoons like Astro boy) Examples include store greeters, companions for people living alone, etc.

I wonder if they will anthropomorphize the speaker services like Amazon Echo. In the US these are bare bones listening and talking cyclinders. The Japanese might want to put an animated face on them for feedback. And make them mobile too.


they seem to already have: http://gatebox.ai/


ARM, a big chunk of Nvidia, and now this: Where does SoftBank get the money for all these acquisitions? I thought they were just a Japanese telco, and not even the biggest.


Probably Japan's central bank doing quantitative easing ... but, no, it comes from investors (Apple, Qualcomm, Foxconn, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Larry Ellison, and so on)!

https://techcrunch.com/2017/05/20/softbank-vision-fund-first...


Kinda weird. I envisage robotics as being the next gigantic thing in technology so its a bit hard to understand why Google don't want this any more.


Google wants to build robotic products. Boston Dynamics wants to build research robots in their well-funded play pen. Boston Dynamics robots have notoriously feeble reliability. No where near a consumer or even industrial product. Its a major culture clash with Google.


But how will that culture fair better under SoftBank?


Mostly because it was a rushed and not totally thought out acquisition - Boston Dynamics never wanted to leave Boston and has always been about legged locomotion, Google wanted them to change and they didn't.


Google has an office in Cambridge which is right next door to Boston.


But all of their other robots that they bought are in the bay!

Except for SCHAFT, who, apparently were also bought by SoftBank today so go figure.


Automation of existing hardware is the next big thing. Self-driving freight, better assembly lines, etc.


You don't understand why Google doesn't want to keep a company that works on military robots?


FWIW, I don't. The world wouldn't have the amazing space programs we collectively do if it weren't for the massive tech transfer that came from military missile research, for example.

A humanoid robot that can be used for military purposes will have a vastly greater number of civilian uses. I used to work as a welder in a shipyard, and believe me, there were plenty of times I could have used a robotic aid to assist a dangerous maneuver, where one side is reasonably safe, the other Guaranteed Instant Death if the safeties fail.

And if Uncle Sam wants to foot the bill for baseline research, why not? Pushing the coming of useful home/civilian robotics away because it could also be used for military purposes, to me, is akin to not wanting to smelt iron because you could use it to make a sword. In the meantime, people starve without metal plows, and the tech will be developed anyway, by someone else, who will do what they want.

(It is better to be the one deciding what to do with the tech than the one waiting pensively to see what will happen.)


More like not wanting to develop nuclear power because you don't want to also create a bomb... there's a rich history of regret on that one.


Even Einstein, a pacifist, realized that it was more important to be the ones that created it than to pretend it wouldn't happen and lets either the Germans or the Russians take control instead.

He claimed to regret it in retrospect, only because he learned after the fact that the Nazis were further behind than he thought.

But the benefit of hindsight is not something we get beforehand. When he thought the risk real, he knew there was only one choice to be made.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einstein%E2%80%93Szil%C3%A1rd_...

//

On top of all that, nuclear medicine has saved more lives than the bomb ever took, by multiple orders of magnitude.

//

Please don't get me wrong- I am not some war hawk. I do not want people hurt or killed, and I don't want to personally build any weapons. But the sort of hand-wringing that some people do over 'evil' technology... Knowledge doesn't work that way. Information is morally agnostic. And if it has the potential to be used in a harmful way, the best way to avoid it is to be the one that sets the leading tone. Anything else, IMO, is just wishful thinking.


On top of all that, nuclear medicine has saved more lives than the bomb ever took, by multiple orders of magnitude.

Arguably the bomb itself has saved more lives than the bomb ever took, by forcing our leaders to resolve their differences diplomatically instead of starting another world war.

Of course, you can't really say in public that without sounding like a caricature from Dr. Strangelove.


I am still amazed that we survived the Cold War intact. There were so many close calls. My father was a Foreign Service officer, and among his many posts, he was stationed in Moscow in the late 50's. Some of the stories he tells still send a shiver down my spine.

But, survive them we did. As he reminded me, there were many people on all sides working as hard as they could behind the scenes to de-escalate tensions, smooth over diplomatic ruffles, calm the angry leaders. MAD was (and is) such a terrifying thought, and enough people understood the implications, that no button was ever pressed. And that is something to draw hope from.


Sure, and I don't disagree with you — but Einstein was a person, Alphabet is a company. The moment your company gets attached to a real-life bipedal murder robot, you're going to forever be running from skynet references.


No argument about murderbots, believe me!

My annoyance with Google's pearl-clutching has more to do with the fact that they treat the entire military need as 'bad', when in reality, 80%+ of .mil jobs aren't even combat-oriented, and the types of robots Boston Dynamics focuses on are clearly intended for pack mule functions or the like. Even if you wanted a strict no-weapon policy, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done in the armed forces.


As long as the military tech has substantial civilian applications, which load-carrying robots certainly do, it's morally pretty neutral.


>You don't understand why Google doesn't want to keep a company that works on military robots?

Military robots aren't automatically bad. If used correctly they could stabilize the security situation in some of the most hellish places on Earth, ultimately facilitating massive humanitarian aid.


Those who don't live by the sword can still be slaughtered by those who do.


Related: those who live by the sword get shot by those who don't.


What are you implying here?


They bought said company that works on military robots before, so no.


AI and automation will unlock that era. For now it gets shelved.


Google wants money, robotics doesn't bring short-term money, advertising does - so it's better to add a "built-in adblocker" that will whitelist google ads (and after removing all adblockers from google store) instead of building robots for better society.


With Google's cash reserves I'm pretty sure short term money is at the bottom of their list of concerns.


For those of you living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and especially for those living in San Jose, you can interact with Pepper at Valley Fair Mall -- Pepper being the AI-infused robot which was one of Softbank's previous acquisitions.

https://www.westfield.com/valleyfair/services/all-services/p...

Generally only small children play with it, and it has the affect of a children's companion.


it will be interesting to see how SoftBank tries to monetize this. I always wonder why Google has had such a hard time making money from other places besides ads, especially since google is trying to turn their company into a full fledged AI company. It would seem robotics will be a center piece of the AI future.


They're still doing powerful research at DeepMind, training reinforcement learning agents in VR where progress can be much faster. I think the path to AI will be simulation - we need to simulate virtual worlds in order to master AI. AI agents need to experiment somewhere. Just make the simulation good enough, detailed enough and study the domain transfer problem to make training in virtual domain and applying in real domain work. We have games with amazing renditions of the world created for human pleasure, we need an AI training playground (of course, OpenAI Gym and DeepMind Lab are starting points).


Are there any other Japanese companies serving as US defense contractors? IIRC that was a big part of why they didn't jive well with Google.


Hmm well Shinetsu probably supplies some wafers upstream.

Mitsubishi heavy industries would be the other prime candidate for aerospace...


Probably the mask writing companies.


"Jibe" not "jive".


FWIW, I'm not a native speaker, and the only time I have ever seen anyone use "jibe" is to correct someone's use of "jive". I'm not sure whether it can really be considered a mistake anymore.


Might as well add "should of" and "on accident" to that list. I don't care how common the usage is, I will always correct those - they rub me the wrong way.


...also add "for all intensive purposes" (there is a use for such a phrase, but not the way most people mean).


Jive has become acceptable in that context and is commonly used that way now (although technically you are correct).


It's common. Whether it's acceptable... I don't know. I think most people imagine it has something to do with dancing together, congruently, to "the jive" which doesn't really make any sense if you think about it very long.

Maybe I can just chalk it up to a compression error in the dictionary though. Perhaps fewer words is better.


I always took it to mean something like "communicating effectively". As in, using the same jive.


About damn time the Japanese start getting their mecha-industry into high gear.


I could never understand what Google wanted with Boston Dynamics. It seemed like a huge risk to their brand:

Google, 2001: "Don't be evil."

Google, 2013: "We make military robots."


Well, I could never understand why they're selling BD. Such cool research.

And now they're Alphabet, so the brand thing should've been ok.


The original slogan always had a convenient loophole. It's about not being evil, but not necessarily not doing evil. If you accept that something can do evil without being evil, it all works out to justify most anything.


Google never actually declared "don't be evil" as its slogan.


They did -- the founders included that phrase in their founder's letter [1] the year they went public in 2004.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_be_evil

[1] https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1288776/000119312504...


The Japanese love their robots. Hopefully we'll start to see something from it.


After seeing the demo video for Ghost Robotics [1], I'd have acquired those guys instead.

What BD has done is indeed impressive. But the motors used by GR are simultaneously cheaper and (to my eye) more responsive. And it looks like they've work out a lot of the kinematics. They just need to commercialize the technology to make some big bucks.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YrWX9ez3jM


That's a very nice mechanical design on the legs with a lot of implicit intelligence. But it doesn't look like the robot has much in the way of software smarts onboard and from the sensor package I'd guess that it has a range of stereotyped behaviors being invoked by a human with a controller operating it.

And a big part of the reason the Ghost Minotaur looks more responsive is that it's smaller and so moves with smaller time constants and because it's executing movements programatically rather than through a feedback loop.


It is not super clear exactly how far they've taken the kinematics. But the physical system is simple enough that it should be possible to develop a very sophisticated and responsive system.

For each leg, you've got two motors per leg, and each motor just has two variables: angle and torque. Then you just have a 6-axis IMU for the chassis itself. All that tells you everything you need to know about the body and leg position, and the terrain you're standing on. I'd say that's way easier than a typical legged robot.

Consequently, it should be easier and cheaper to implement a given level of capability.


I wonder if any Japanese construction companies ever considered aquiring Boston Dynamics. There are quite a few of them who are really pushing for construction automation[1].

1. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/03/16/business/tech/ja...


I think the problem with this for Google and construction is they have pretty, smooth, impressive dynamic control systems. Unfortunately that's where it ends -- at control. You don't have intelligence beyond that.

If you have to have someone driving the robot at a high level then it is less helpful in industry. The robot can't on command say "go pick up that box" or "go hang the drywall on those studs". That is an AI problem for open construction environments. For controlled environment industrial applications the dumb, non-dynamic repetitive systems work just fine.

Construction companies don't have that missing piece. SoftBank may have a shot at it.


Here we go. Gundam is coming.


Boston Robotics is doing better than Motorola right?


Tremendous loss for Google.


I disagree. These robotic company acquisitions were spearheaded by Andy Rubin after he was asked to step aside from Android. When Andy left Google these companies were left rudderless. There was also a lot of friction between Boston Dynamics and the robotics division within Google. This is simply Google unloading unprofitable acquisitions (due in most part to Google not accepting military contracts) Andy made.


Tremendous gain for Japan, and everyone else, eventually. Theres huge demand and pressure for automation in Japan because of their aging population. I think softbank will find some very usefull and apreciated applications for these robots.


I agree, but I wonder if it is because main usages for such robots are military and that would make a negative opinion impact on Google.


yes its a great loss for Google.

but they have plenty of things going on this is just another distraction from there core product groups.


Wow, I missed the news Boston Dynamics had been bought by Google. Did Google do much with them during their mentorship?


SoftBank also acquired Aldebaran a few years ago, who's Pepper robot appears to be a toy next to the Boston Dynamics stuff.


Softbank is a major investor in a lot of robotic companies other than the few that they own. The Softbank robot portfolio, as measured by dollars invested, a lot larger than most people realise. Unless you are raising B or C round money for a robot company. Then you have them on speed dial.


"Don't be evil."

"We make killer robots."

That's one way to square the circle.


id love to see SoftBank dump some $ into Sprints awful network - maybe the robots will run around with range extenders


Is this a sign of Japan rising again?


Oh, this is gonna be good.


God it really annoys me when journalist don't use commas in their headlines... Maybe the robots should start making the headlines.


SoftBank is interesting to say the least. Google it and Saudi funding.

They even have a cute (kawaii) mascot. So cyberpunk.




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