Despite SoftBank‘s less-than-stellar track record in Robotics, recent reports suggest that the Japanese investment firm is not giving up on the industry. SoftBank is currently in discussions to acquire shares of 1X Technologies, a Norwegian humanoid robotics company previously backed by OpenAI.
SoftBank aims to invest between $75 million and $100 million, valuing it at $375 million pre-investment, according to the latest reports.
Initially, it was expected that SoftBank might directly invest in OpenAI. However, it now seems that the Japanese investor is exploring the robotics route once again. It is highly anticipated that the next big thing following generative AI will be its application with the help of robots. SoftBank’s pursuit of AI is evident as the Japanese investor is making significant efforts to profit from AI.
1X faces tough competition
Earlier this year, 1X Technologies raised $23.5 million in a Series A2 funding round, with primary backing from the OpenAI Startup Fund. Other notable participation came from investors such as Tiger Global, alongside a group of Norwegian investors including Sandwater, Alliance Ventures, and Skagerak Capital.
Presently, 1X has EVE, a humanoid robot which operates autonomously. It can handle various door types, recognize people and objects from a distance, and manoeuvre through unstructured spaces, mimicking human capabilities. However, the company has yet to introduce highly competitive products in the market.
With OpenAI’s investment, 1X plans to come up with a bipedal robot called NEO. However, when compared to robots from Google DeepMind and Tesla, it appears to be very basic. Google Deepmind is pretty bullish on developing a general purpose robot.
Recently, the tech giant introduced RT-1-X, a robotics transformer (RT) model developed from RT-1 and trained on its dataset. This model demonstrates the transfer of skills across various robot forms.
Similarly, Tesla recently announced major improvements in its humanoid robots and it looks like it is moving closer to what Musk has envisioned for Optimus. Last year, Optimus just waved on the stage. Now, it can pick up and sort objects, do yoga, and navigate through surroundings.
Moreover, compared to others such as Boston Dynamics that work on rule-based systems, Optimus works on neural networks.
Of late, Amazon too has been experimenting with humanoid robots in select US warehouses, marking a significant step in its automation endeavours. The tech giant aims to optimise efficiency by introducing these robots, named ‘Digit’, which emulate human movements for tasks such as moving and handling items.
SoftBank has a less-than-ideal track record
It is crucial for SoftBank that the 1X bet pays off. SoftBank Group Corp’s Vision Fund unit reported a record annual profit of $32 billion in the year ended March 2023. To overcome losses, the investment firm is now looking at AI to generate returns. This is not the first time SoftBank has ventured into robotics.
SoftBank acquired Boston Dynamics in 2017 for $1.1 billion from Google. However, in 2021, it sold a controlling stake in Boston Dynamics to Hyundai Motor Group. In 2021, SoftBank also halted the production of Pepper, hailed as the first robot with “a heart”. Manufactured by Foxconn in China, Pepper was designed to address labor shortages but faced challenges in finding a widespread global customer base.
Similar to SoftBank, OpenAI’s past in robotics hasn’t been an impressive one. In 2021, the company disbanded its robotics team after years of research into machines that can learn to perform tasks, like solving a Rubik’s Cube.
Will Fortunes Change?
Currently, 1X hasn’t disclosed much about the technology they will use to build the NEO robot. The website just says, “Using embodied artificial intelligence, NEO will understand its environment deeper, thanks to the fusion of their AI “senses” and their physical body.”
However, if the company collaborates with OpenAI’s LLMs, who knows, they might end up building the best humanoid robot. Not to forget, GPT-4 is now truly multimodal as well, with vision capabilities.
Also, NVIDIA Research made a recent announcement about their AI agent, Eureka. This agent has the unique ability to automatically generate algorithms for training robots. According to the research paper released by NVIDIA, Eureka combines the natural language capabilities of GPT-4 with reinforcement learning, allowing robots to acquire complex skills autonomously.
Who knows with this investment, SoftBank might eventually emerge as a winner in the field of AI and robotics, or just look for a way to exit at the right time.
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