What is the future of robotics and automation in the home? Over the last few years, the most obvious trend has been for virtual assistants like Alexa to link together smart devices through voice commands. But Colin Angle, the CEO and co-founder of Roomba creator iRobot, has other ideas.
In an interview with The Verge, Angle says he believes the smart home of the future should itself be an “inside-out robot,” with sensors and mechanical controls for things like heating and lighting. A device like a Roomba would provide a key function, moving around the house to map out its rooms and feed this data into a home operating system. Paired with voice commands, the result would be a more intuitive smart home, that understands us better.
You can read our interview with Angle below, in which he discusses this vision as well as the controversy last year when Reuters reported (incorrectly) that iRobot was considering selling user data. Angle talks about the origins of the Roomba, which was partly inspired by work iRobot was doing developing mine-sweeping robots; the company’s ambitions for the future, facilitating in-home care for the elderly; and the surprisingly strong personal relationships Roomba users form with their robots.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
I saw a >joke
going around on Twitter recently, i
that the Roomba had been invented by an iRobot engineer after he was assigned vacuuming duties in the company’s early days. Is that true?
So, that came from a robot conference in Boston, where there was a panel where they bought up some of the founders of the companies that have been spun out of iRobot. It was a little bit of a trip down memory lane, and one of the guys up onstage was Joe Jones, who was one of the earliest employees of iRobot. For fun, he put a slide, from 1994 I think, which showed each of the different duties iRobot employees had during the week. It was one of those things only a bunch of 20-year-olds trying to manage a company for the first time could come up with. Under my name, it said “wash blankets and pillows.” I’m not entirely sure why, but I think that’s because we used to have a tradition of company nap time ... we would all find couches and take a nap [around six in the evening], then get up and work until three in the morning, then go home, and repeat this nocturnal cycle. So I had to be in charge of washing the pillows.
Anyway, Joe Jones, his responsibility was vacuuming. I don’t think this was actually the true motivation for the Roomba, but it was certainly entertaining to suggest because Joe was one of the few people who was involved in the earliest stages building it. [The slide] was not saying anything profound. It was more of a look at the early culture of the company!
So what is the true origin of the Roomba, if not an engineer trying to get out of vacuuming duties?
The idea came because everyone asked for it! I would literally introduce myself, and people wouldn’t say “good to meet you” or “how are you,” but “When are you going to clean my floor?” It was very predictable. And after a while, I would say back, “Well how much are you willing to pay?” Because I didn’t know how to build a vacuum cleaner that was inexpensive.
>The Roomba was born out of mine-sweeping and industrial cleaning
This stayed as just a known good idea without any path forward. But then, a series of events happened at iRobot, where we worked on mine-hunting robots for the military and began developing a way that a robot could be sure it had covered an area by moving around it. We were doing work with [cleaning supply company] S.C. Johnson at the time, building cleaning machines for airports and supermarkets. And when that project was winding down, there were a few employees — including Joe Jones — who said, “We have this idea: I think we finally know enough to build a consumer robot.” And I said, “Okay, here are some resources. Show me what you can do.”
It was successful, of course, and it spiraled up into a program. It was driven by employee ideas, and it grew into this fantastic economic engine for the company.
If people used to demand floor-cleaning robots from you, what do they ask for now?
It depends on the time of year. In the winter, they want a robot that will shovel snow. In the fall, they want leaves picked up. Certainly bathroom cleaning represents a nasty task that folks would prefer robots to take care of. You also have conversations about webcams and security in the home and things like that. Robots offer the hope that we can wave a magic technology wand and the drudgery of our lives will be relieved, and it’s one of the reasons robots are so fun. This is one of the few industries where we really offer a better way [of living], and although nothing is ever quick enough or fast enough or good enough, we do have some real successes to lend credibility to that offer.
[Talking about future home robots] is always a fun conversation, but I admit it can be frustrating. We can go and work for years and come out with a brilliant new design, and I’ll finish explaining everything we’ve done and how cool it is, and the first question I get is “That’s great, Colin. What’s next?” If you’d asked me when I founded iRobot, I would certainly not have guessed that our great success would be a vacuum cleaner, because it’s really just scratching the surface of what robots are meant to do.
How do you view the current state of automation within the home, where we don’t have robots scrubbing our bathroom tiles, but we do have assistants like Alexa and a great number of connected devices, like
and kitchen utensils?
The smart home is one of these great promises that hasn’t quite lived up [to expectations] in terms of experience, I think. We’ve seen a great proliferation of different elements, and the world is experimenting with how to fit them together, but we’ve learned that these elements by themselves aren’t necessarily enough to succeed. Very quickly, the amount of complexity you can manage in your home is overwhelmed by the number of connected devices, [so] we’re at this awkward stage where we have many of the parts but we don’t have a system that works.
That’s where robotics comes in. We should be designing smart homes like we design robots — with sensors, inputs, and outputs that can do physical things, like controlling lighting, heating, opening up blinds, and so on. For that, we also need spatial context. We need to know where rooms are, what’s in them, and tie all that together into an understanding of the whole home.
Where does iRobot fit into that vision then?
Well, we can do all these things if we understand where everything is, and we’ve got our vacuuming robots that can gather this type of information. You can imagine you buy a robot and it maps out your house and your connected devices. Then you start to get this alliance with your home, and your home becomes an inside-out robot that’s working on your behalf.
This idea of Roombas being used to collect data has been controversial. Last summer, Reuters
that iRobot might sell maps of users’ homes to companies, which you later said was a >misinterpretation
of your remarks. So
just to be clear, what does iRobot want to do with customers’ data?
First, iRobot will never sell your data. It’s your data, and if you would like that data to be used to do something beyond helping your robot perform its job better [like mapping your home for IoT devices], then you’ll need to give permission. We’re committed to [EU data privacy legislation] GDPR and are ensuring that if you want to be forgotten, then we’ll be able to forget you.
>“Your home becomes an inside-out robot.”
We’re not interested in building a company around selling data. But we want to be a trusted aggregator of spatial information that can help your house come alive and give you this great experience. Information about your home collected by your Roomba could help everything work, so if you say, “clean my kitchen,” then that happens. Or if you say, “turn the lights on in the kitchen,” that works. But that would be something that happens only if the customer allows it to happen. We’d ensure any data shared would be protected.
Ultimately, iRobot sees ourselves extending beyond just maintenance of the home, into helping people live in their home longer. I think elder care and extending independent living is going to be the first really large-scale application of consumer robotics. It requires the companies doing it have a deep history and commitment to privacy and trust. We’re investing in this long-term play, and maybe that means there are short-term opportunities we’ll miss as a result, but that’s fine.
Thinking about a future where we live more closely and become more dependent on robots, I noticed that in iRobots social media feeds, there’s a lot of content about people welcoming Roombas as if they’re part of the family. Is that common? Do you encourage it?
It’s inevitable, despite our best efforts really. We explicitly designed the Roomba to not look like a creature because we wanted people to take it seriously and not think it’s a cute toy, which was a common perception in the early days. Despite this, around 85, 90 percent of Roomba owners name them, and it even leads to some entertaining support calls, when we have some ring up and say, “Hello, my Roomba is broken,” and we say, “Fine, we’ll send you a new one,” and they say, “No way! I’m never sending you my Rosie! You better send someone round to fix it.” Because it’s their pal, it’s part of their family. And we say, “Fine, fine. We can’t send round the Roomba ambulance, but we’ll mail you a spare part.”
Humans just love to anthropomorphize things. Think of the personalities we give to stuffed animals or the phenomenon a couple of decades ago with Furbys. Over 40 million were sold, and I think around half of those were sold to adults, because people just wanted to have this little friendly companion around.
Now, of course, it’s going to become more complicated and more interesting when our conversations with robots become more complex, when you can really interact and be entertained. These skills, if you embed them in a mobile robot, will dramatically amplify the types of relationship that between someone and their smart speaker, say. I don’t think people will indulge in it to the exclusion of other types of interaction and human contact, but it’s sad but true that there’s a very huge and lonely population in many countries and a lot of social isolation. There’s a need to find some way to scratch that human itch, and it isn’t going away.
Source : https://www.theverge.com/2018/4/19/17256074/roomba-irobot-ceo-colin-angle