What is Boston Dynamics?
The easy answer for that: a company that makes crazy advanced robots that can walk — be it on two feet or four — better than just about any other robot in the world. We’ve seen this in countless YouTube videos of the company’s robots stomping its way across countrysides, opening doors, and traversing up and down stairways.
But what is the company itself? What is it doing this for? 25 years after founding and an acquisition (and, possibly, a sale) by Google later, that’s still not 100% clear.
Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert — and the team’s latest Robot, Spot Mini — joined us onstage at Disrupt London 2016 to discuss this.
Raibert says that 25 years after founding the company, it’s starting to “turn a corner to think about making a product and finding some narrower applications”.
While Raibert declined to outline Boston Dynamics’ roadmap — though he says that he thinks we’ll see products “soon” and that the company has “the makings of a roadmap” — he mentioned a few specific areas of interest:
- Home delivery: “We’re exploring the idea of home delivery. Instead of using drones, maybe you can do it with plain ol’ robots”, later noting a walking robots’ strengths over even a wheeled delivery robot like Starship such as the ability to hop up curbs and stairs.
- Assisting the elderly: “I think it’s one of the biggest opportunities to help mankind. In the US, more than 30 million people spend more than 20 hours a week with an elderly person they’re giving care to. Those people are being good… but not everyone has that. If we had machines that could help, there’s a lot that could be done”
Beyond those applications, he envisions the company working with developers to expand the capabilities of its robots at some point in the future — but he’s not quite sure how that’ll work yet:
We’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about making a platform that, you know, “app” developers could work on… but it takes getting things abstracted enough so that, like, a phone developer would have the right skills. We don’t know how closely we’ll be working with [developers].. the current plan is to probably work with them pretty closely. We’ll probably develop some reference apps ourselves, where we do the whole implementation, then see how far we can broaden things out.
But before any of that can happen, they’ve got to figure out how to make these things cheaper. You can build the best robot in the world — but it won’t matter nearly as much if no one can afford to buy them. “The robots in the videos are pretty expensive still.” Raibert notes. “We’re interested in seeing if we can get the cost down from prototype costs to product costs. That’s a place we’re starting to reassign some of our talent.”
As for a looming acquisition of the company itself: Raibert declined to comment on running rumors of Toyota’s Researching Institute acquiring Boston Dynamics, but did note that he visited their office (which, coincidentally, is in the same space where Boston Dynamics started over two decades ago) just a few weeks back. And hey, wouldn’t you know it: helping the elderly remain independent is something the Toyota Research Institute is already tinkering with.