That Backflipping Robot Is Just a $1 Billion Party Trick

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It’s impressive that a humanoid machine can propel itself into the air, invert and spin 360 degrees, landing back where it started. Heck, most humans can’t even do that — but then most don’t need to, either. And that’s just the problem for Boston Dynamics Inc.

Beyond wowing people for entertainment, there isn’t a big market for robots that can perform the athletic feats of sentient beings. They make for viral YouTube videos and not much more.

That explains why SoftBank Group Corp. is rational in looking to offload the U.S. robot maker just three years after buying it. The Japanese technology company is in talks to sell Boston Dynamics to South Korean auto manufacturer Hyundai Motor Co., people familiar with the matter told Sarah McBride and Anto Anthony of Bloomberg News. The deal could value the developer of beefy mechanical humans — and dogs — at an $1 billion, according to the report. That looks a bit pricey.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google also struggled to turn Boston Dynamics into a commercial success. Google bought the company, which was spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 2013 and sold it to SoftBank in 2017. 

SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son should have known better. The sheer uselessness of Pepper — a four-foot humanoid receptionist that the Japanese company introduced in 2014 — was a clear hint of the limited utility of machines made to mimic humans.

I have met numerous Peppers, invariably in the lobbies of companies trying to look hip and high-tech, and have yet to come across any executive who thought it was a sound purchase. Sony Corp.’s Aibo, a robot dog launched in the late 1990s, was another Japanese trailblazer that did little more than add some digital cuteness to the world. 

SoftBank could have drawn on five centuries of history to know that humanoid robots have been deployed largely as a sideshow, rather than productive tools. Leonardo da Vinci created a mechanical knight in 1495. There are no reports of it winning any battles.

Da Vinci’s other inventions undertook more mundane tasks like cleaning wool, winding yarn, or grinding glass lenses. Perhaps the most famous humanoid robot of the 18th century, The Mechanical Turk, was found to have been a fraud. On the flipside, we can be thankful that screenwriters’ dystopian visions of our robotic future haven’t been realized.

Spot, Boston Dynamics’s robot dog that can be bought for $75,000, is a symbol of how impractical the company’s business model appears. 

Perhaps Hyundai can finally put those robots to work on an assembly line, if it can stop them from doing Parkour on the factory floor.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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