The news: On Friday, Google confirmed its acquisition of Boston Dynamics, a Waltham, Mass., and uncanny valley-based robotics company that’s become renowned for its eerily lifelike creations. The tech giant has made a spate of robotics acquisitions over the past several months as part of a “moonshot” program guided by Andy Rubin, a man who oversaw the development Google’s Android operating system, and who appears bent on developing an actual, life-sized android.
The background: Founded in 1992 by Hawaiian shirt aficionado Marc Raibert, a pioneer in the field of animal-like bipedal and quadrupedal robots, Boston Dynamics has attained mainstream fame through company’s YouTube channel, which presents matter-of-fact videos of the company’s robots in action.
From BigDog, a quadrupedal pack robot that’s designed to scale steep, wet, snowy, and rocky terrain, to the clattering WildCat, which can gallop with impressive speed and agility, Boston Dynamics’ robots are at once deeply disturbing and oddly endearing. After a short time of watching the robots run and stumble on their spider-like legs, it’s impossible not to root for their success, or to feel a pang of regret when, as in the video below, an operator kicks or shoves them off course.
Raibert, who previously worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and top-tier universities like Carnegie Melon and MIT, would prefer that Boston Dynamics isn’t thought of as a military contractor. However, the company has advised the Army, Navy, and Marines on the construction of skittering automatons, and has provided the robot for military research agency DARPA’s current Robotics Challenge Trials, which hope to develop a humanoid robot that can assist in natural and nuclear disasters — and, by extension, other situations that are inhospitable to human life.
The robots’ inherent creepiness isn’t much helped by what sounds like moral ambivalence on the part of its creators. Speaking to Engadget about Boston Dynamics’ online outreach efforts, Raibert said, “YouTube is a great way. You have complete control, right? So you show what you want to show, you don’t show what you don’t want to show, and we love that. And maybe we’re control freaks a little bit … You get to get that feedback directly, right? You get all kinds of statistics on who’s watching.”
The takeaway: While Boston Dynamics’ robots are impressive at sprinting, scaling, and leaping, Google probably won’t be able to launch its very own Cylon wars any time soon. DARPA’s current competition is focused on getting robots to complete simple tasks on command, like scaling a ladder or turning a valve. The devices are only expected to have the level of competency of a two-year-old, even if they look a little less like a toddler and more like a terminator.
If anything, Google’s acquisition comes as part of its efforts to diversify its income stream, as 95% of the company’s revenue currently comes from advertising, a market that Google has all but saturated. While Google has pledged to fulfill Boston Dynamics’ remaining contracts, it may take the company in a decidedly more civilian direction — perhaps teaching BigDog not just to run, but to fetch.