Home Robot Maker Keeps the Remote in Human Hands

It appears that iRobot is on an August publicity sweep. In a Steve Jobs-esque move, after cutting prices on the Roomba and Scooba, Colin Angle, Co-founder and CEO, and Geoff Clear, CFO, spoke at an investors conference last week to show some previews of new battlefield add-ons to their much loved in times of war Packbot. This move nicely mixed a feel-good "protecting our troops" message into their mediocre earnings report(pdf). Now it appears the executive staff are on a media tour. The New York Times ran an interview (NYT reg required) on Friday with Colin Angle, and in a separate announcement Helen Greiner, Co-founder and Chairman of the Board, will be keynoting The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

So, since it's been a slow news weekend for robotics, I'll bite. Take a look at pages 23-25 of the above mentioned earnings report, and you'll see some of the battlefield robots they're producing, including a partnership with Nomadics, Inc., the maker of a bomb sniffing sensor called the Fido. (BTW - Add Bomb Sniffing Dogs to the list) In most cases I air on the side of Give Ominous Warning Here when it comes to battlefield robotics, but the packbot, so far, has all of the good with none of the bad. I have to say that I'm feeling the feel-good message when it comes to iRobot. It seems that they like to focus on
"Designing robots that tackle dull, dirty and dangerous tasks – making a difference in people’s lives"
But moreover, they make sure that their autonomous systems are mostly dumb (ever seen a Roomba try to navigate a room?) and their battlefield bots are firmly under remote control. This is especially true in cases where they seek to weaponize the robots, or where the technology has the feel of controlled chaos (i.e. Swarms). iRobot always seems to make sure that there's a "man in the loop." Kudos to iRobot for maintaining human dominance over the planet.

The only Sans Sapiens word of warning I give to iRobot is on the Roomba Open Interface. Roomba hackers are already attempting to create their own swarms to "take over the world! (Or, well, maybe just your house)." iRobot seems to have the same open attitude when it comes to add-ons for the packbot and other military-use bots. Weapons makers and their heirs throughout history will attest, albeit from the grave, to their regret for making such objects only to have them maligned by the powers that be. iRobot is a rock star in the robotics world right now, and unlike most rock stars this company actually has the brains to do something with the publicity and money. Let's all hope they do what's right.

Thanks to Robot Stock News


Norm said...

Hopefully that Roomba is not armed. I the red light goes out watch out.

Hugh Mann said...

That Roomba pictured in the posting is frightningly reminiscient of a HAL 9000 panel.