Alphabet Shakes Up Its Robotics Division


Google’s robotics division has been plagued by low morale and a lack of leadership since the unit’s founder left abruptly in 2014. Now Alphabet is cleaning it up.

Over the last two months, Alphabet, the new holding company that separated Google from its collection of speculative projects, has reframed the robots effort, moving it from a stand-alone division inside Google to a piece of the X research division. The company has also hired Hans Peter Brondmo, a technology industry veteran who last worked at Nokia, to help with management.

Courtney Hohne, an X spokeswoman, confirmed the moves, but declined to comment further.

A reorganization of the robots group is one of several recent moves inside the X division, which used to be called Google X but was rebranded with the Alphabet reorganization and recently unveiled a new logo.

A range of companies, including tech competitors like Amazon and car manufacturers, are signaling their interest in robotics.

“Everything is happening, from industry manufacturing to self-driving cars to drones to personal robotsto AI systems,” said Fei-Fei Li, director of Stanford University’s artificial intelligence laboratory.

X has several projects in varying degrees of completion, but has lately been “graduating” them as stand-alone companies or preparing them for such a move. The life sciences group, for example, isnow called Verily. X also recently hired an auto industry veteran to lead its self-driving car effort – called Chauffeur internally – and noted that the project was a good candidate to be spun out.

Robotics has gone in the opposite direction for reasons that are personal and practical. The division was created in 2013 by Andy Rubin, who led the development of the widely used Android operating system software, and it has been without a leader since Rubin left in 2014 to start a technology incubator that helps young startups turn their ideas into businesses.

X, which is run by Astro Teller, is using some element of robotics in numerous projects like self-driving cars; Project Wing, an effort to deliver packages with drone aircraft; and Makani, an effort to capture wind energy with high-flying kites.

So in December, the division was moved inside X. The X team will first have to review the various projects and refocus them toward solving specific problems that would be reframed as a particular moonshot effort, according to Hohne.

The group’s most recent hire, Brondmo, will help with that process. He has a background as a product manager. He graduated from the MIT Media Lab and has led successful Internet startups, including an early digital video company, an Internet marketing firm and Plum, a social networking company, which was acquired by Nokia in 2009. At Nokia, he developed an unannounced camera project until it was canceled in 2014.

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