IEEE Volunteer Torsten Kroeger | Alphabet’s Intrinsic Acquires Majority of Open Robotics
[*Note: Torsten Kroeger is the CTO of Intrinsic and Immediate Past VP of Conferences for the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.]
Today, Open Robotics, which is the organization that includes the nonprofit Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) as well as the for-profit Open Source Robotics Corporation (OSRC), is announcing that OSRC is being acquired by Intrinsic, a standalone company within Alphabet that’s developing software to make industrial robots intuitive and accessible.
Open Robotics is of course the organization that spun off from Willow Garage in 2012 to provide some independent structure and guidance for ROS, the Robot Operating System. Over the past dozen-ish years, ROS has expanded from specialized software for robotics nerds into a powerful platform for research and industry, supported by an enthusiastic and highly engaged open source community. Open Robotics, meanwhile, branched out in 2016 from a strict non-profit to also take on some high-profile projects for the likes of the Toyota Research Institute and NVIDIA. It has supported itself commercially by leveraging its experience and expertise in ROS development. Open Robotics currently employs more than three dozen engineers, most of whom are part of the for-profit corporation.
Intrinsic is a recent graduate from X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory; the offshoot’s mission is to “democratize access to robotics” through software tools that give traditional industrial robots “the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they’re completing tasks.” This, the thinking goes, will improve versatility while lowering costs. Intrinsic is certainly not unique in harboring this vision, which can be traced back to Rethink Robotics (if not beyond). But Intrinsic is focused on the software side, relying on learning techniques and simulation to help industrial robots adapt and scale in a way that won’t place an undue burden on industries that may not be used to flexible automation. Earlier this year, Intrinsic acquired intelligent automation startup Vicarious, which had been working on AI-based approaches to making robots “as commonplace and easy to use as mobile phones.”
Intrinsic’s acquisition of Open Robotics is certainly unexpected, and the question now is what it means for the ROS community and the future of ROS itself. We’ll take a look at the information that’s available today, and then speak with Open Robotics CEO Brian Gerkey as well as Intrinsic CEO Wendy Tan White to get a better understanding of exactly what’s happening.
Before we get into the details, it’s important to understand the structure of Open Robotics, which has been kind of confusing for a long time—and probably never really mattered all that much to most people until this very moment. Open Robotics is an “umbrella brand” that includes OSRF (the Open Source Robotics Foundation), OSRC (the Open Source Robotics Corporation), and OSRC-SG, OSRC’s Singapore office. OSRF is the original non-profit Willow Garage spinout, the primary mission of which was “to support the development, distribution, and adoption of open source software for use in robotics research, education, and product development.” Which is exactly what OSRF has done. But OSRF’s status as a non-profit placed some restrictions on the ways in which it was allowed to support itself. So, in 2016, OSRF created the Open Source Robotics Corporation as a for-profit subsidiary to take on contract work doing ROS development for corporate and government clients. An OSRC office in Singapore opened in 2019. If you combine these three entities, you get Open Robotics.
The reason why these distinctions are super important today is because Intrinsic is acquiring OSRC and OSRC-SG, but not OSRF. Or, as Open Robotics CEO Brian Gerkey puts it in a blog post this morning:
Intrinsic is acquiring assets only from these for-profit subsidiaries, OSRC and OSRC-SG. OSRF continues as the independent nonprofit it’s always been, with the same mission, now with some new faces and a clearer focus on governance, community engagement, and other stewardship activities. That means there is no disruption in the day-to-day activities with respect to our core commitment to ROS, Gazebo, Open-RMF, and the entire community.
To be clear: Intrinsic is not acquiring ROS. Intrinsic is not acquiring Gazebo. Intrinsic is not taking over technical roadmaps, the build infrastructure, or TurtleBot, or ROSCon. As Open Robotics’ Community Director Tully Foote says in this ROS Discourse discussion forum post: “Basically, if it is an open-source tool or project it will stay with the Foundation.” What Intrinsic is acquiring is almost all of the Open Robotics team, which includes many of the folks who were fundamental architects of ROS at Willow Garage, were founding members of OSRF, but have been focused primarily on the Open Robotics’ corporation side (OSRC) rather than the foundation side (OSRF) for the past five years.
Still, while ROS itself is not part of the transaction, it’s not like OSRC hasn’t been a huge driving force behind ROS development and maintenance—in large part because of the folks who work there. Now, the vast majority of those folks will be working for a different company with its own priorities and agenda that (I would argue) simply cannot be as closely aligned with the goals of the broader ROS community as was possible when OSRC was independent. And this whole thing reminds me a little bit of when Google/Alphabet swallowed a bunch of roboticists back in 2013; while those roboticists weren’t exactly never heard from again, there was certainly a real sense of disappointment and community loss.
Hopefully, this will not be the case with Intrinsic. Gerkey’s blog post delivers a note of optimism:
With Intrinsic’s investment in ROS, we anticipate long-term benefits for the entire community through increased development on the core open source platforms. The team at Intrinsic includes many long-time ROS and Gazebo users and we have come to realize how much they value the ROS community and want to maintain and contribute.
For its part, Intrinsic’s blog post from CEO Wendy Tan White focuses more on how awesome the Open Robotics team is:
For years, we’ve admired Brian and his team’s relentless passion, skill, and dedication making the Robot Operating System (ROS) an essential platform for robotics developers worldwide (including us here at Intrinsic). We’re looking forward to supporting Brian and members of the OSRC team as they continue to push the boundaries of open-source development and what’s possible with ROS.
There’s still a lot about this acquisition that we don’t know. We don’t know the exact circumstances surrounding it, or why it’s happening now. But it sounds like the business model of OSRC may not have been sustainable, or not compatible with Open Robotics’ broader vision, or both. We also don’t know the acquisition price, which might provide some additional context. The scariest part, however, is that we just don’t know what’s going to happen next. Both Brian Gerkey and Wendy Tan White seem to be doing their best to make the community feel comfortable with (or at least somewhat accepting of) this transition for OSRC. And I have no reason to think that they’re not being honest about what they want to happen. It’s just important to remember that Intrinsic is buying OSRC primarily because buying OSRC is good for Intrinsic.
If, as Gerkey says, this partnership turns out to be a long-term benefit for the entire ROS community, then that’s wonderful, and I’m sure that’s what we’re all hoping for. In the post from Foote on the ROS Discourse discussion forum, Intrinsic CTO Torsten Kroeger says very explicitly that “the top priority for the OSRC team is to nurture and grow the ROS community.” And according to Foote, the team will have “dedicated bandwidth to work on core ROS packages, Gazebo, and Open-RMF.” But of course, priorities can change, and however things end up, OSRC will still be owned by Intrinsic. Fundamentally, all we can do is trust that the people involved (many of whom the community knows quite well) will be doing their best to ensure that this is the best path forward for everyone.
The other thing to remember here is that, as important as the broader ROS community is, everyone at Open Robotics is also a part of the ROS community, and we should (and do) want what’s best for them. These are people who have committed a huge chunk of their lives to ROS; expecting that they’ll all keep doing so indefinitely out of inertia or obligation or whatever just not realistic or kind. If the OSRC team is excited about Intrinsic and wants to try something new, that’s fantastic, more power to them, and I hope they all get massive raises. They deserve it.
And much of what happens going forward is up to the ROS community itself, as it has always been. Are you worried about updates or packages getting maintained? Contribute some code. Worried about support? Participate in ROS Answers or add some documentation to the wiki. Worried about long-term vision or governance? There are plenty of ways to volunteer your time and expertise and enthusiasm to help keep the ROS community robust and healthy. And from the sound of things, this is exactly what the OSRC team hopes to be doing, just from inside Intrinsic instead of inside Open Robotics.
Our interview with Open Robotics CEO Brian Gerkey and Intrinsic CEO Wendy Tan White is here. And if you have specific questions, there’s a ROS Discourse thread for them here, where the Intrinsic and Open Robotics teams will be doing their best to provide answers.