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iRobot’s autonomous housecleaning robots are already in millions of homes around the world. Spare your sci-fi dreams of humanoid robots fetching your beers for now — this is the only consumer robotics company that matters today.
If you don’t know the company name, you certainly know its products. To date, iRobot has sold 10 million housecleaning Roomba vacuums, saving its customers time and effort in one aspect of that thing we all hate so much: housework.
The company is built on much more than vacuums, however — its other consumer offerings will wash your floors, clean your pool, and even clear out your gutters.
iRobot also has an impressive business selling battle-tough bots to military and police — we profiled that side of its business here. These bots are used for a variety of applications, having been put to work in Afghanistan at the height of the war, and even in Fukushima, Japan after the reactor meltdown.
CEO and co-founder Colin Angle, 46, recently gave us some time for questions. Here are some takeaways from our conversation, with the full (lightly edited) interview below.
- iRobot is interested in eventually building robots to help the elderly lead more comfortable lives. We’re rapidly ageing as a society, so robots might be just the thing to step in and help us out in our twilight years.
- Humanoid robots are not practical. Function is more important than form, so a robot’s utility needs to come first.
- The idea of a “robot uprising” is not really something to worry about. Long before humanity needs to worry about that, we’re going to need to solve much more interesting problems. One is to answer the question “What is ‘human?'”
- The next generation of Roombas will use a superior navigation technology called vSLAM. They’re going to navigate around your house more efficiently with help from low-cost cameras that will help them keep track of where they already have and haven’t yet cleaned.
BUSINESS INSIDER: What got you interested in robotics?
COLIN ANGLE: A passion for building things, and to have those things be more than just a fantasy — to be quite practical.
“Star Wars” was the right movie for me. I watched the
MSE-6 droid leading the stormtroopers where they needed to go when they were under attack, and that got my attention much more so than C-3PO and R2-D2 because we could actually build that.
Robots had so much potential but none of it had been reduced to practice. We were going to make the robot industry real by ignoring all notions of what a robot was “supposed” to be — form that met function. It wasn’t about the “cool demo.” I had lots of experience around cool demos, especially at MIT. I was interested in the longer term, playing in the space where robots could be in the consumer or commercial world.
BI: Your company’s name is a reference to Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot”, I assume?
CA: It is, but at the time, the “i” stood for “internet.” The original name of the company was Artificial Creatures Inc. Around the late 1990s, I’d become convinced that one of the killer applications of robotics came from connecting robots to the internet. The idea of solving generalized artificial intelligence was still far away, but heck, I could rent brains by hiring operators. iRobot was the name of the company and one of our most ambitious projects, iRobot LE. It was an internet-connected robot, but it was ultimately not launched.
BI: Do you have any favourite robot books or movies?
CA: There are many of them. “Star Wars” was an early inspiration. Johnny Five from the “Short Circuit” movies. “WALL-E“ is a movie about a trash-collecting robot, so how can I not love that? It celebrates a practical, mundane robot that goes about its life.
BI: In the time since you and your co-founders started iRobot, what have been the most impressive developments in the field?
CA: It’s hard not to love Roomba. Roomba had such an amazing impact on the field. When we launched, we asked people, “Is it a robot?” and got an overwhelming no — “robots” have arms and legs, they command data. There was a very strong perception that robots had to look like people. Roomba didn’t use the word “robot” other than in the company name on the packaging. The press called it a robot. Now here we are 10 years later. I think, as a result, people are generally willing to imagine robots of all shapes, as humanoid robots are not practical.
The other thing Roomba did was to demonstrate that if you can crack the code and make a robot that delivers more value than it costs, you can sell 10 million of them. The utility of the robot needs to come first. It’s business model over technology.
When I was building robots in the early 1990s, the problems of voice recognition, image understanding, VOIP, even touchscreen technologies — these were robotics problems. Now a robot company would be crazy to be working on those types of challenges. The gaming industry has stepped in to solve those problems. The Kinect sensor is perfect for gesture recognition, for example. These advances from the technology side have opened up room for advancement in the robot space. That’s exciting because to create new value in the robot space quickly, you need to stand on the shoulders of other technological developments. Starting from scratch can be a five- or ten-year project. If you can leverage a growing infrastructure of rich technologies, you can start to build more useful robots with less capital investment, and that’s what’s required to succeed.
BI: This is such a clichéd question, but where do you stand on the robot uprising?
CA: Long before we have a robot uprising, we’re going to deal with much more interesting problems. This idea that we’re going to build a robot that has human cognition and appreciation for morals and values, that’s super-hard stuff. If you think about the incorporation of robotic technology in our bodies, that’s much nearer at hand.
There are implants with robotic technologies can restore hearing, and we’re starting to have more routine surgery facilitated by robots. We have people who have lost their limbs in tragic situations who now have thought-controlled arm, legs, or ankles incorporated directly into their bodies.
Thus far, this technology is being used in response to traumatic injury, but it’s easy to imagine your daughter coming to you one day and saying, “Hey Dad, I was thinking of having my eye removed. An artificial eye is going to give me better sight. Forget Google Glass, let’s have the technology built in.”
This is plausible and will create new challenges in the world. Having access to this technology gives you advantages over people who don’t. The more important question is “What is human?”
BI: How does iRobot decide on what to work on next? Anything cool in the works you can talk about?
CA: We obviously continue to work on extending our leadership in markets we currently serve, but the impact of mobile and gaming asks the question “What is robot technology?” The answer is navigation, manipulation, and implementation of more sophisticated intelligence. The idea that a robot will become more aware of its environment, that telling it to “go to the kitchen” means something — navigation and understanding of the environment is a robot problem. Those are the technological frontiers of the robotics industry.
Where are we going? Extending independent living for our elderly is certainly not the only market for robots — there are robots in oil wells and many other things — but it’s in that direction. We are rapidly ageing as a society and most developed nations are suffering from the same challenges. In the U.S., there is an 18% gap on healthcare services for those in later life and the average cost of assisted living is well over the cost of a mortgage on a home.
BI: I read that the next generation of Roombas will implement something called “vSLAM.” What can you tell me about vSLAM, and how much better will a vSLAM Roomba be than one that relies solely on bumpers and sensors?
CA: Navigation is a key robot technology so vSLAM is about map-building and visualising yourself on a map. “SLAM” stands for “simultaneous location and mapping” — the robot drives through an environment and builds a map of its environment. At the same time it keeps a running estimate of its position within that map, and to do it well right now is relatively expensive. It requires long-range laser rangefinders to build this map effectively. It works great in commercial setting, but the big challenge is cost.
vSLAM stands for “visual” SLAM. Instead of lasers, we’re using low-cost cameras. The robot moves around just like with SLAM, but the map it makes is based on cameras finding landmarks in its environment that it can recognise from a variety of angles and lighting. Tracking three landmarks means you can triangulate your position very accurately.
The cost of the hardware decreases from thousands of dollars to tens of dollars, and that opens up many new applications for the technology and robots in general. At our Analyst Day we demonstrated a system in the lab and used it to move around a building. We’re very excited about it.
In practical consumer terms, Roomba will have an understandable map of what it’s doing. This means it can spend more time where the dirt is and less time where it isn’t. It can cover more square footage in the same amount of time, or the same square footage in less time. You can stop and recharge, then continue where you left off. It’s about having the knowledge about what’s been done where.
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