Could Google’s purchase of BigDog inventor Boston Dynamics lead to help with crises like Ebola?

Boston Dynamics founder and chief executive Marc Raibert at the EmTech MIT conference in Cambridge (photo by Kyle Alspach)
Boston Dynamics founder and chief executive Marc Raibert at the EmTech MIT conference in Cambridge (photo by Kyle Alspach)

Throughout his talk at the EmTech MIT conference today, Boston Dynamics chief executive Marc Raibert carefully avoided mentioning the robotic-elephant in the room — Google, which just so happens to own his company.

bigdog

BigDog

Most likely the stealth tactic is coming from Google—the tech giant’s name is nowhere to be found on the site of Waltham-based Boston Dynamics, either. But it could also be a sign of  Google’s willingness to allow the groundbreaking, 22-year-old company to keep doing its thing, with relative independence.

Boston Dynamics, if you don’t recognize the name, is the maker of robots you’re probably familiar with thanks to YouTube. The MIT spinout has developed a number of human- and animal-like bots—including BigDog—that can walk, climb, and keep their balance when kicked. (The now-classic BigDog video is here, while a popular spoof video is here.)

Google acquired Boston Dynamics in December, in what was seen by many as an odd move, since the firm mostly makes robots for the military.

But during a Q&A at EmTech, Raibert said, “We’re coming down the curve” toward the point where commercial applications might be possible.

Raibert pointed to a medical crisis such as the Ebola outbreak, where “people are interacting who are going to get contaminated.” Boston Dynamics’ human-like Atlas robot, for instance, could some day be used in such situations, Raibert said. “It seems like a great application for a machine that can go in an unstructured place” to help sick people, he said.

Raibert said Boston Dynamics “still [has] a ways to go” before the cost, reliability, and performance of its robots are good enough for commercial products, “but it’s happening.”

As for Google: a questioner in the EmTech audience asked Raibert how things have changed for Boston Dynamics since the acquisition.

Raibert’s answer: there’s more money and support for Boston Dynamics than ever.

“We worked largely as a DARPA-funded organization for about 20 years before acquired by Google,” Raibert said. “One of the exciting things about working for them is that DARPA had a lot of money and a lot of vision [but] I think Google has more money and more ambition and vision. And I think it’s going to be a great time working there.”

Kyle Alspach has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since 2005 and was one of the original staff writers at BetaBoston.
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