What is the future of robotics and automation in the home? In recent years, the most obvious trend has been for virtual assistants, such as Alexa, to link smart devices through voice commands. But Colin Angle, CEO and co-founder of the Roomba creator, iRobot, has other ideas.
In an interview with The Verge, Angle says he believes that the smart home of the future should be a "robot from the inside out," with sensors and mechanical controls for things like heating and lighting. A device like Roomba would provide a key function, moving around the house to plot its rooms and feed this data into a home operating system. Together with the voice commands, the result would be a more intuitive smart home, which understands us better.
You can read our interview with Angle below, in which he analyzes 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 inspired in part by the work that iRobot was doing in the development of mine sweeping robots; the ambitions of the company for the future, facilitate home care for the elderly; and the surprisingly strong personal relationships that Roomba users form with their robots.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
I saw a joke on Twitter recently, which implied that the Roomba had been invented by an iRobot engineer after he was assigned aspiration tasks in the early days of the company. That's right?
So, that came from a robot conference in Boston, where there was a panel where they bought some of the founders of the companies that split from iRobot. It was a bit of a trip down the memory lane, and one of the guys on stage was Joe Jones, who was one of the first iRobot employees. For fun, he placed a slide, since 1994, I think, that showed each of the different duties that iRobot employees had during the week. It was one of those things that only a group of 20-year-olds who try to manage a company for the first time could have. Under my name, it said "wash blankets and pillows." I'm not entirely sure why, but I think it's because we used to have a tradition of napping time for the company … we would all find sofas and take a nap [around six in the evening] then get up and work until three in the morning, then go to your house and repeat this night cycle. So I had to take care of washing the pillows.
Anyway, Joe Jones, his responsibility was to vacuum. I do not think this really was the true motivation for Roomba, but it was certainly entertaining to suggest because Joe was one of the few people involved in the early stages of construction. [The slide] I was not saying anything deep. It was more a look at the primitive culture of the company!
So, what is the true origin of the Roomba, if it is not an engineer trying to get out of the aspirate tasks?
The idea came because everyone asked for it! I would literally introduce myself, and people would not say "I'm glad to meet you" or "how are you", but "when are you going to clean my apartment?" It was very predictable. And after a while, he would reply: "How much are you willing to pay?" Because I did not know how to build a vacuum cleaner that was not expensive.
The Roomba was born of industrial cleaning and mine sweeping
This remained as a good known idea with no way to go. But then, a series of events happened at iRobot, where we worked on mine-hunting robots for the military and we began to develop a way for a robot to be sure that it covered an area moving around it. We were working with [cleaning supply company] S.C. Johnson at that time, building cleaning machines for airports and supermarkets. And when the project was closing, 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, "Well, here are some resources, show me what you can do."
It was successful, of course, and it became a program. It was driven by the ideas of employees, and grew to become this fantastic economic engine for the company.
iRobot & # 39; s Roomba 980.
If people used to demand robots to clean the floor, what do they ask for now?
It depends on the time of year. In the winter, they want a robot that is going to shovel the snow. In the fall, they want to collect leaves. Certainly, the cleanliness of the bathroom represents an unpleasant task that people would prefer robots to deal with. He also has conversations about webcams and home security and things like that. The robots offer the hope that we can wave a wand of magical technology and the shortage of our lives will be relieved, and this is one of the reasons why robots are so funny. This is one of the few industries where we really offer a better way [of living] and although nothing is fast enough or fast enough or good enough, we have some real successes to give that offer credibility.
[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 present a brilliant new design, and I will finish explaining everything we have done and how great it is, and the first question they ask me is: "That's great, Colin, what comes next?" If you had asked me when I founded iRobot, I certainly would not have guessed that our great success would be a vacuum, because in reality it is only scratching the surface of what robots should do.
How do you see the current state of automation within the home, where we do not have robots scrubbing our tiles for the bathroom, but we have assistants like Alexa and a lot of connected devices, such as light bulbs and kitchen utensils?
The smart home is one of these big promises that has not lived up to it [to expectations] in terms of experience, I think. We have seen a great proliferation of different elements, and the world is experimenting with how to unite them, but we have learned that these elements alone are not 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 are in this uncomfortable stage in which we have many parts, but we do not have a system that works.
That's where robotics comes into play. We should design smart houses as we design robots, with sensors, inputs and outputs that can do physical things, such as controlling lighting, heating, opening blinds, and more. For that, we also need a spatial context. We need to know where the rooms are, what's in them, and unite all of that in an understanding of the whole home.
The biggest trend in the development of smart homes has been the arrival of virtual assistants such as Amazon's Alexa.
Where does iRobot fit into that vision?
Well, we can do all this if we understand where everything is, and we have our vacuum robots that can collect this kind of information. You can imagine that you buy a robot and map your house and your connected devices. Then he begins to make this alliance with his home, and his house becomes a robot from the inside out that is working on his behalf.
This idea that Roombas is used to collect data has been controversial. Last summer, Reuters reported that iRobot could sell maps of users' homes to businesses, which he later said was a misinterpretation of their comments. So, to be clear, what does iRobot want to do with customer data?
First, iRobot will never sell your data. It's your data, and if you want that data to be used to do something beyond helping your robot do its job better [like mapping your home for IoT devices] then you must give your permission. We are committed to [EU data privacy legislation] GDPR and make sure that if you want to be forgotten, then we can forget it.
"Your house becomes a robot from the inside out."
We are not interested in creating a company that sells data. But we want to be a reliable aggregator of spatial information that can help your home come alive and provide you with this great experience. The information about your house collected by your Roomba could help make everything work, so if you say "clean my kitchen," then that will happen. Or if you say: "turn on the lights in the kitchen", that works. But that would be something that would happen only if the client allows it. We would make sure that the shared data was protected.
In short, iRobot looks beyond the simple maintenance of the home, to help people live in their home for longer. I believe that the care of the elderly and the extension of independent life will be the first truly large-scale application of consumer robotics. It requires companies that do so to have a deep history and commitment to privacy and trust. We are investing in this long-term play, and maybe that means there are short-term opportunities that we will miss as a result, but that's fine.
Robots and home automation will become crucial tools to care for the elderly. Photo of Sam Byford / The Verge
When we think of a future in which we live more closely and become more dependent on robots, I noticed that in the social networks of iRobots, there is a lot of content about people who welcome Roombas as if they were part of the family. Is that common? Do you cheer him up?
It is inevitable, despite our best efforts actually. We explicitly designed the Roomba so that it did not look like a creature because we wanted people to take it seriously and not think it was a cute toy, which was a common perception in the first days. Despite this, around 85, 90 percent of the Roomba owners name them, and even take some entertaining support calls, when we have a doorbell and say: "Hi, my Roomba is broken", and we say: " Well, we'll send you a new one, "and they say," No way! I'll never send you my Rosie! You'd better send someone to fix it. "Because he's your friend, he's part of your family. And we say: "Good, good". We can not send the Roomba ambulance, but we will send you a spare part by mail. "
Humans love anthropomorphizing things. Think of the personalities we gave to stuffed animals or the phenomenon a couple of decades ago with Furbys. They sold more than 40 million, and I think about half of them were sold to adults, because people just wanted to have this friendly little companion.
Now, of course, it will become more complicated and more interesting when our conversations with robots become more complex, when you can really interact and entertain yourself. These skills, if you integrate them into a mobile robot, will dramatically amplify the types of relationship that exist between someone and their smart speaker, for example. I do not think that people get it with the exclusion of other types of interaction and human contact, but it is sad but true that there is a very large and lonely population in many countries and a lot of social isolation. There is a need to find a way to scratch that human itch, and it will not go away.