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SAN FRANCISCO â Googleâs robotics division has been plagued by low morale and a lack of leadership since the unitâs 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.
âEverything is happening, from industry manufacturing to self-driving cars to drones to personal robots to A.I. systems,â said Fei-Fei Li, director of Stanford Universityâs artificial intelligence laboratory.
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X has several projects in varying degrees of completion, but has lately been âgraduatingâ them as stand-alone companies or preparing them for such a move. The life sciences group, for example, is now called Verily. X also recently hired an auto industry veteran to lead its self-driving car effort â called Chauffeur internally â 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 Mr. Rubin left in 2014 to start a technology incubator that helps young start-ups 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 to review the various projects and refocus them toward solving specific problems that would be reframed as a particular moonshot effort, according to Ms. Hohne.
The groupâs most recent hire, Mr. Brondmo, will help with that process. He has a background as a product manager. He graduated from the M.I.T. Media Lab and has led successful Internet start-ups, 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.
Mr. Brondmo declined to comment.
After starting the robotics division, Mr. Rubin quickly went on a buying spree, purchasing a number of promising companies, including Boston Dynamics, the of experimental military robots, and Schaft, an elite group of Japanese roboticists from the University of Tokyo.
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The effort was called Replicant internally â a nod to âBlade Runner,â the 1982 science fiction film â and at one point was considering deals to supply robots to load and unload trucks for a major package delivery company.
But while the companies were promising, Mr. Rubin invested in several technologies that had industry observers scratching their heads about his overall direction. Mr. Rubin originally said that the robotics division would be a 10-year moonshot, and when he was in negotiations to acquire companies he talked about the possibility of the driverless Google car rolling up to your house and the Google robot jumping off the back bumper.
âAndy Rubin acquired some of the best, innovative companies out there, but also a mix that leaves one wondering about how he imagined it all fitting together,â said Tandy Trower, founder and chief executive of Hoaloha Robotics, which is developing robots to help older people and people with disabilities.
Mr. Rubin now directs an artificial intelligence-oriented investment incubator called Playground Global. It is based in Palo Alto, Calif., a few miles from his old offices, and has received investments from Google, Foxconn and others.
Mr. Rubin did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Googleâs robotics effort stalled after his departure, going through a variety of leaders, including James Kuffner, a Carnegie Mellon roboticist who has since joined Toyotaâs research and development laboratory in Palo Alto, and Jonathan Rosenberg, who is a troubleshooter for Larry Page, the Google co-founder who is Alphabetâs chief executive.
Many in the industry say it is likely to be awhile before companies, Alphabet included, can get through the many technological and regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of robots becoming a huge business.
âDespite the acceleration of robotics technology, accessibility to it may take longer than we anticipate,â said Mr. Trower. âOther examples are the new regulations that are being put in place to address the use of autonomous cars or flying drones.â