The cofounder of Google’s robotics division James Kufner left the company to join Toyota’s new artificial intelligence research lab, the automaker announced at the Consumer Electronics Conference in Las Vegas.
Kuffner’s departure is the latest setback to Google’s ambitious robotics efforts.
The robotic team has been essentially adrift since losing its primary architect, Andy Rubin, a year ago. Last month, the robotics group, known internally as Replicant, was folded into the company’s Google X hardware lab rather than being spun out into a separate company as some had expected.
“It’s becoming clear that in the next phase of machine learning, access to lots of data to find and fix corner cases and to make a robust system is going to be very important, and I think Toyota is very well positioned to do that with its resources and its data,” Kuffner told PC World after the conference.
Toyota’s presentation about its $1 billion institute highlighted in particular how its lab planned to “bridge the gap between fundamental research and product development.”
That may have appealed to Kuffner in part because creating real products was something that Replicant struggled with, Business Insider reported in an in-depth feature on the division this fall.
The group was basically a collection of robot companies that Google bought under Rubin’s leadership. After he left in 2014 to start a new hardware incubator, Business Insider heard from several sources that the group lacked focus and a cohesive plan. It also struggled to find a leader to replace Rubin: Kuffner had taken over for several months, as had Google veteran Jonathan Rosenberg.
A person with knowledge of the matter said that Google’s decision to roll Replicant into X would help refocus the group, by defining specific real-world problems in which robotics technology could help.
“We wish James all the best in his new efforts,” a Google spokesperson told Business Insider via email.