Google buys 8 robotics companies in 6 months: Why?

Google's (GOOG) acquisition of military robotics maker Boston Dynamics has certainly gotten tongues wagging but has left one key question unanswered: Why?

  Media reports about the deal didn't provide much insight other than to note that Boston Dynamics makes cool stuff. The search engine giant has named Andy Rubin, who oversaw the development of the Android operating system, to head its robotics endeavors, which the company has without irony called a "moonshot." A spokesman for Google confirmed the acquisition but declined to answer any questions. 

"The deal is also the clearest indication yet that Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care," according to the New York Times.

Google, which has a market capitalization topping $357 billion, probably didn't break a sweat buying Boston Dynamics, which is based in the Boston suburb of Waltham, or the seven other robotics companies it has acquired in the past six months. The company has been making a splash with its robotics research for a while. It has been testing driverless cars since 2010 and according to its research, these vehicles were operated more safely with computer drivers than human ones. Google reportedly is in regular contact with automakers about its work in this area.

Wall Street has long fretted about Google's dependence on search advertising for most of its profits. Others have questioned its interest in pursuing seemingly unrelated side projects whose potential benefits to its bottom line are years away, if they happen at all. Google seems to ignore such chatter and prides itself on being a hub of innovation. Workers there have traditionally been able to devote 20 percent of their time to side projects, though there have been some reports that is becoming more difficult.

Boston Dynamics' robots such as Cheetah, which can reach speeds up to 29 miles per hour, BigDog, designed to traverse rough terrain, and the anthropomorphic PETMAN, which is designed to test chemical protection clothing, are certainly cool looking and could easily be mistaken for something coming out of a science fiction movie. The company, which is profitable, does a brisk business with the U.S. Department of Defense. It was founded in 1992 after being spun off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
 
"We have had a great time building unusual robots and bringing them this far along," says Marc Raibert, the company's founder, in an email statement, adding that the entire company will stay under Google ownership. "Now we can take them to the next level and push them much further ahead."
 
Google is wealthy and patient enough to gamble that Boston Dynamics' futuristic technology might have real world benefits, even if they aren't obvious to the casual observer.  

This post was updated at 5:30 p.m. to add comments from Boston Dynamics.

  • Jonathan Berr

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