Earlier this month, Hyundai acquired a controlling stake in Boston Dynamics that valued the company at $1.1 billion. What’s most interesting about the news isn’t the acquisition itself (it does, after all, find Boston Dynamics switching hands for the third time in seven years), but rather what the company’s evolution tells us about the state of robotics in 2020.
When the Waltham, Massachusetts-based startup was acquired by Google in 2013, it was still a carefully cultivated mystery. That the internet’s response to the company was largely one of curiosity shaded with discomfort should come as little surprise. Boston Dynamics’ primary output from a public relations perspective was viral videos of impressive but imposing quadrupedal robots built with the aid of defense department contracts. It doesn’t take a giant leap to begin coloring in the gaps with dystopian sentiment.
In instances where robotic deployment has been successful, the technology has helped ease the burden on an impacted workforce.
Some of that has continued to follow the company, of course. Even in the age of short attention spans, one doesn’t quickly forget an image of a man in a fleece vest unsuccessfully attempting to kick over a headless buzzing robot in an empty parking lot. Heck, to this day every post I do about the company is greeted with multiple gifs of the knife-wielding robot from the “Metalhead” episode of “Black Mirror.”
While the company is still committed to its more bleeding edge R&D concepts, Hyundai didn’t purchase a strange little MIT-spinoff that makes viral internet videos. It purchased a company actively working to monetize those efforts. As CEO Robert Playter told me in a recent interview, the company has sold 400 Spots since opening initial availability around 15 months ago. It’s not a huge number, but it’s a sign that interest in the company’s products extend well beyond novelty.
Spot’s primary task at the moment involves surveying dangerous workplaces, from nuclear reactors to oil rigs. Boston Dynamics’ next product, Handle, will move boxes around a warehouse. That robot is set to go on sale at some point in 2022. “I think something like a robot every couple of years is a pace that we could manage,” Playter told me. “From clean sheet, we can build a new robot in under a year. “And then you have to go through an iterative process of refining that concept and starting to understand market fit.”
Maturity in this industry requires a level of pragmatism. Tasked with describing the state of robotics in 2020, I would probably say it’s something like, “Cool technology employed for uncool tasks.” You can, no doubt, identify exceptions (making special effects for movies like Bot & Dolly is decidedly cool), but on the whole, Boston Dynamics is a perfect example of impressive robots doing boring stuff. Any roboticist will happily hammer into you the concept of the three Ds — the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs where the technology is most likely to be deployed.