New robots from Alphabet’s X (probably!) won’t kill you

The last time a Google robot trounced through the snow in a video, the robot lost its job.

This one might have better luck.

At a New Economic Summit conference in Tokyo on Friday, the founder of Schaft — one of the robotics companies Google acquired three years ago and moved to its X lab in December — showed off its latest development. A short bipedal robot trotted out onstage, followed by a video showing it fielding through different obstacles courses, plodding up stairs and navigating the outdoors.

A rep for X (formerly Google X) claimed the presentation isn’t an announcement or indication of its product roadmap. “The team were simply delighted to have a chance to show their latest progress,” the spokesperson said. “As with all of the robotics teams that recently moved from Google to X, we’re looking at the great technology work they’ve done so far, defining some specific real-world problems in which robotics could help, and trying to frame moonshots to address them.”

Presumably Google knew this video was happening. That wasn’t the case with the last robotics video to emerge — one from Boston Dynamics, another Google robotics firm, showing off its similarly dexterous bipedal robot. As Bloomberg first reported, that video landed as Google was preparing to put Boston Dynamics on the chopping block.

Part of the reason, according to internal emails surfaced, was the concern about the reception to Boston Dynamic’s humanoid robots, particularly coupled with Google’s very powerful artificial intelligence. The Schaft robot, as you can see above, is smaller, less menacing and less likely to evoke Skynet-type concerns.

Another reason for Boston Dynamics’ exit, according to several sources, was the vacuum left by the departure of Andy Rubin, the ex-Googler who ran the nascent robotics division, called Replicant, inside the company. Oddly enough, Schaft reportedly presented during Rubin’s keynote at the Tokyo conference.

Shortly after joining Google, Schaft won the DARPA Robotics Challenge trials. But Google decided to pull the robotics unit from the competition.

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