IRobot’s Colin Angle on the Home Run of Robotics (It’s Not A.I.)

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weren’t originally conceived of as the enabler of the smart home. It was a voice interface to the Internet—and if I could go and talk to the Internet as opposed to browsing the Internet, that might lead to some interesting places.

Somewhere along the way people started thinking, ‘Hey maybe this is the answer to the smart home,’ when it’s really only part of the answer. As a robot guy who tries to figure out how to make things work automatically, context and understanding of the local environment goes hand-in-hand with artificial intelligence. We’ve watched A.I. rocket past robotics in very real terms by constraining the world that the A.I. acts on to the digital space. Whereas we poor robot guys are saying, ‘I’d really love to be working on how I make a robot go to the kitchen and bring me a beer, but I really haven’t figured out where the kitchen is.’

X:  Little things like that.

CA: Little things like that—and so I’m stymied. But the exciting thing in robotics is that we’re actually rolling out solutions to understanding the environment so that these higher-level tasks are suddenly more within our grasp. And that’s amazingly exciting. It’s only taken 27 years to go from where we started this at iRobot to where there is hope that within a very short amount of time we’ll be able to understand where the kitchen is.

X: Way to go.

CA: Yep, yep. It takes thick skin and patience and a fair amount of dedication to be in this industry, but there is definitely an acceleration that’s happening both because of the commercial success of home robotics and the advent of this technology to allow us to understand our environment enough to do more stuff.

X: So probably therein is the answer to how you differentiate iRobot from the things being done by big players like Google and Amazon. It seems like you see them more as potential partners than adversaries.

CA: Oh, absolutely. Those companies’ ability to have speaker-independent voice recognition, rich interfaces that allow you to ask their systems anything and get anywhere from a minimally satisfying to a completely satisfying result, requires tremendous investment and resources. Where iRobot comes in is we can give you the spatial information required for a system like that to do the right thing. And if you tell Alexa to turn on the lights in the kitchen and it doesn’t know what the kitchen is, nor does it know what lights are in the kitchen, it doesn’t know what to do. If we can help with that, that’s a great partnering opportunity.

X: That in some ways would mean you’re a data company, which clearly you are, but you’re also building robots.

CA: The data that is collected enables the owner of the Roomba to make their homes smarter by allowing some type of data sharing with an Alexa. In the future—it doesn’t exist today. You can turn on your Roomba with Alexa, but can’t do much more than that today. So there is a real data dimension to iRobot which is growing very, very rapidly. It’s something that differentiates our products in the marketplace. We think that our future is quite simple: there are multiple robots in everyone’s future. There’s this inherent promise in robotics to make our lives easier and so if we can build up this ecosystem of robots in the home—we’ve got vacuuming and mopping and are hard at work at other things—we will be very successful. With the information robots are collecting in order to work better—with permission of the homeowner—there’s opportunities to make other dimensions of the smart home work better as well.

X: So can you give us some quick stats on the Roomba and mopping—and then share a little bit about what you’re working on?

CA: Roomba is 85-90 percent of our revenue and is growing quite rapidly. In 2017, we expect sales of Roomba in North America to increase by over 40 percent. It is really quite wonderful. Last year, our entry level Roomba was the top-selling vacuum cleaner in the United States. So that is a rocket ship. The mopping category—our Braava line of robots—is starting from a much lower base, but it grew by even a larger percentage in North America [although] it’s not going to displace Roomba any time soon. But here is further example that if you get the function right, and at a price people can afford, there is an excitement to bring robots into the home.

As you think about the future, there’s actually two dimensions. There’s what are the next products? When am I going to get a robot that folds laundry? When are we going to have robots that mow lawns—things like that. We will see robots like that over time—there are different challenges, [like] having dexterous manipulation. But we’re past the point of, ‘Are home robots in the future, or is this something real gathering momentum?’ It absolutely is. The domestic appliance industry is going to go through a tremendous disruption as people start to expect more from their home appliances. I’m a little disappointed that we don’t [yet] see a greater diversity of products from the rest of the consumer electronics world. But so be it.

X: Is there anything out there that you wish you would have done?

CA: Not yet. If someone comes out with a laundry-folding robot, I’ll wish I had done that. There’s one company that has a big machine to do it. I’m not sure they’re at mass market price points. And Franklin Robotics has a neat gardening robot [Editor: It’s called Tertill] that’s a cool beginning of outdoor robotics. But home maintenance is full of these treadmill tasks where we just have to do them every day. Every one of them is an opportunity for robotics and automation.

X: So for iRobot, is the smart home right now the interior of the home as opposed to the grounds?

CA: We certainly look holistically at the home. Lawn-mowing is something we’ve talked about as being an area of interest. The challenge is what are the technological barriers that stand between idea and product. Robotics is tremendously exciting and tremendously frustrating at the same time, because the pace of new product introduction has never been satisfying. I joke that give me 10 minutes and a blank piece of paper, and I’ll write down a lifetime of projects for an aspiring roboticist. But at the same time it is moving, and every year we see more good robot companies emerging. And as we see successes and dollars entering the space, that’s a spinning up of the flywheel. But we need innovation on the ‘go do hard, physical work’ side in order for the industry to take its next steps.

X: You’ve been open about your failed business models and products—and you even put failed products in the museum near your lobby. Do you have any key insights from these to share?

CA: Certainly that innovation and failure come hand-in-hand. If you’re not failing and succeeding, you’re not trying. Being an entrepreneur in general, and probably a robotics entrepreneur in specific, requires tremendous optimism and patience. We’re sitting in my office and I’m surrounded by images of 50 robots that we’ve tried throughout the years, and the vast majority are not Roombas. … Next Page »

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