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

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So every time you build something, you learn something about this unforgiving field.

Our first business model—private mission to the moon, sell the movie rights—led to the growth and launching of micro-rovers like Spirit and Opportunity and Sojourner. Using robots to defuse bombs for the military was, ‘Hey, that’s a bad idea to have people doing this. Why can’t we build a robot to do it?’ So we did. The halls of iRobot, of our museum, are full of these things that started off as crazy ideas or Lego models, and this confidence that maybe there’s a better way being played through to practical reality.

X: Let me switch gears and get a couple quick takes. Is there any update on your venture fund you can share?

CA: IRobot continues to be very committed to investing in early-stage startups in the robotics and IoT areas. We actually have a pretty good track record of success and are quite pleased with the returns and the potential of the companies that we have put money into. It started off as an experiment—and at this point we view it as a valuable part of iRobot’s activities, particularly as it relates to both innovation and supporting this growing industry.

X: Are you doing it as a strategic investment where you think it will help your future business, or are you sometimes just helping a young company?

CA: If iRobot is to be involved in your company, it has to be in an area that we view as of interest to iRobot. So we wouldn’t invest in an industrial robotics company unless we thought there was a really cool manipulation technology that could one day be useful in the consumer space. But we’ll also invest in companies that might have a strategic technology that enables home understanding, even if its applications were broader than just enabling robotics. So we try to be thematically relevant to the company, and not just because we think if they succeed they become an acquisition target. It’s mostly because we understand the places that we play. And if we think you have a technology that’s going to be important, well then maybe we have some insight that suggests you’re on the right track. We could influence and help that company make good decisions.

X: How do you see the international market for home robotics? Especially China, which seems to be a challenge.

CA: Well, the international market for robotics is lagging, but chasing the U.S. market. The growth rates are up in all markets. We’re seeing good traction in Japan and Europe. We’re seeing great growth and traction in China. In the China market, we actually had a reduction in revenues but 20 percent growth in sell through. We got caught a little flat-footed at the end of last year, beginning of this year, on what the market wanted from iRobot and there’s some major competitors that have been really successful at the low to mid-range, which gave us some headaches on our inventory strategy. But the market itself is growing well, and our sell through is growing well.

X: So quickly, are there are a few takes on hype versus reality in this field?

CA: Oh my god. Hype [and] reality in robotics go hand in hand. The promise of robotics is so profound, and starts at such a young age, that the reality of robotics can never stay in step. Every two-year-old is passionate about whales, dinosaurs, and robots. And from that early age our mental imagining of what the robotics industry is supposed to be is so exciting, and the challenge of robotics is so hard, that they’re just nearly incompatible. I’m guilty of this, too. If you asked me in 1990 when iRobot was founded, ‘OK Colin. Twenty-seven years have passed, and you are a successful public company. What do you build?’ There’s no way I would have said 90 percent of my revenue is coming from the vacuuming industry. I think I would have said, ‘Well, we are a diversified robot company with androids.’ It would just be completely different than reality.

You know, I’m depressed and excited at the same time. There’s just this massive disconnect between our fears and worries and expectations of robots versus the reality of what’s happening.

X: Where do you come down on whether robotics takes away jobs, or adds jobs?

CA: Robotics changes the world, just like the dishwasher changed the world and autonomous cars could change the world. It means that some very, very hard problems now have solutions. We tend to jump to ‘Oh my, am I going to lose my job?’ without thinking of the fact that unless we can extend our ability to live independently at home, we are going to see a tangible reduction in the standard of living as our society gets older—because there just are not enough young people to take care of the old people.  We need to find solutions. The home run of robotics is not vacuuming. The home run of robotics in my mind is helping people stay in their home as they age and maintain the lifestyle advantages of living at home. And thus, we’re going to need a lot of robots.

It’s going to be an exciting industry, and it is going to employ a ton of people. ‘N’ years from now, I don’t know if it’s 20 or 50 or 100, you just won’t be able to imagine how life was possible without robots.

X: Well, let’s try again. Twenty-seven years from now, what’s iRobot going to be?

CA: It’s going to be less diverse and more important. Twenty-seven isn’t that long, first off. Not in robot years, which are worse than human years—anti-dog years. We’re going to have multiple robots in our homes that maintain the home and deliver services into the home such that our living spaces can be to a large extent self-managing.

X: You’re talking about physical robots?

CA: Physical robots. Different sizes. There’ll be a robot that you interact with, robots that go and do physical work, and your home will also be quite robotic. It will be a system that you buy in parts, that network together, and give you a self-maintaining experience. Homes will probably be much smaller than they are today. You could have rooms that reconfigure. There’s cool startups today that are working on that eventuality already.

When you talk about what is the robot future, you have to also have an idea of what the future is going to look like. The current generation lives a significant part of their existence in the virtual world. So the home 27 years from now is going to blur real and virtual quite seamlessly. The robot dimension of that needs to play into that future, but the robot’s job in this wild and crazy gray area is to keep the physical part of your life organized and managed. You’re still going to have to vacuum the floor. You’re still going to have to get your food from wherever it’s prepared to wherever you want to eat, even if you’re too frail to be able to move it there yourself. The physicality of robots is going to become more and more important as we get older. We’ll be increasingly dependent on robots to deliver the stuff that keeps a physical human body nourished and happy.

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