For most people, the company iRobot Roomba is known as a manufacturer of robotic vacuum cleaners. It is little known that robots bearing this logo serve at the sites of war conflicts and natural disasters, and the name of the company’s founder is engraved on the Martian spacecraft. We were lucky enough to have a chat with Colin Angle. Robots help soldiers and rescuers.
You discovered and helped decontamination of the site of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, cleaned up the Gulf of Mexico hit by a natural disaster, searched for explosive devices, and helped catch the perpetrators of the explosion at the Boston Marathon. They support the work of reconnaissance units and firefighters in Afghanistan and look forward to the tasks assigned to them during the World Cup in Brazil.
iRobot is known to the public as the inventor and manufacturer of robotic vacuum cleaners and mopping robots. In addition, iRobot Roomba offers pool and gutter cleaning robots.
We had the opportunity to talk with Colin Angle, the founder and current director of iRobot, in a hotel in Munich. He was not just a businessman, but an enthusiastic inventor, whose company he created makes children’s dreams come true (not just theirs) and makes it easier and more meaningful for people life.
This year, in connection with the presentation of the new Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, he mentioned that he wanted to build robots even as a child. What was the function of your first robot?
You know, I liked to solve problems. My mother, for example, told me to wash the dishes in my room. So I spent the rest of the day building a machine to do this for me. It was actually a crane-like structure and a system of toy trucks that transported dishes through the house to the kitchen. There were wires and cables everywhere and the biggest result was that the adults in the house were completely terrified.
I loved machines like this. Machines that solve problems. I never felt that I should build humanoid robots, I wanted to solve existing problems.
When did he finally abandon his plan to make human-like robots. After all, in various science fiction films and books, robots are very often humanoid.
You know, making robots is quite a difficult task. It takes years and challenges to make a robot that can do its job, but at the same time has an affordable price. As a rule, if we make a robot that looks like a human, it also means that it will be much larger, more complicated, less reliable and, last but not least, much more expensive than necessary.
If we are not making a robot for entertainment purposes, we must abandon the approach that it should look human. On the other hand, the question must be asked: What should the robot be able to do? The answer determines what it should look like. In my experience, the ideal solution rarely looks like a person.
Take, for example, the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. It is small in size, so it can fit under a sofa and can clean even tight spaces and corners. If it were like a human, it would not be able to access some places or only very complicated. In its current form, it weighs much less, is safer and a relatively small battery is sufficient to operate it. Therefore, it has an affordable price.
On what basis did you decide to pay special attention to Roomba robot vacuum cleaners?
When we founded iRobot in 1990, everyone we met asked when Roomba robots would be able to clean. This could have something to do with the cartoon series The Jetsons, in which a robot named Rosie did the cleaning. It was a very basic expectation of people.
In the early days of the iRobot company, we didn’t really know how we could make robots at a price that people could afford. We started working with the Johnson Wax company, which dealt with cleaning, and thus we learned a lot about how to clean well and effectively.
At the same time, we started a collaboration with the toy manufacturer Hasbro, which allowed us to produce mechanical moving parts at a low cost. The army did not have a problem with the production, but an average person would not have been able to buy the products.
We also had a contract with the army. The algorithm that controls the Roomba vacuum cleaner was actually developed through a military project to search for mines in open terrain. By 1998, everything was ready for us to say: We can do it! At that time, we started the development of Roomba and presented the product in 2002.
What features did their first commercial robot have?
The first product with the iRobot logo that you could buy was actually a toy. A toy doll whose face was able to show different facial expressions depending on how a child played with it. You could see on it when he was hungry, when he was woken up, he showed an angry expression, laughed when he wanted to play, or just frowned when he was grumpy.
It was indeed a very interesting product and unique on the market at the time. Despite this, it was not at all successful.
With this sentence, he provided an excellent basis for our next question. Does it often happen that manufacturers who want to come up with some revolutionary product do not assess the market well and produce a product that no one wants to buy?
iRobot has been on the market for 24 years and during this time we have tried our hand in 18 different fields. In our quest to create robots that have significantly more value than goods, we have failed many times.
For example, we made toy robots. Instead of looking at the screen, the user could follow the robot in his own living room during the game. But they were too expensive and quickly failed. With moderate success, we made a robot that scouts oil wells, cleans ventilation pipes, or even lays tiles.
In the last 14 years, I have mainly been involved in the development of robot avatars. for 14 years. We are now in the process of launching the product. During that time, there were five or six failed attempts before we managed to design one that was convincing enough—one that could really represent that person well.
I like to call these failures funny moments. These bots grab your attention for a few minutes, but then you don’t want to use them anymore.
Sometimes you have to try crazy ideas for the first time. No one has ever tried to make things like us. Why should you succeed the first time?
Approaching the matter from the other side. Are you currently working on a product that you are absolutely convinced will succeed?
Yes. We are still at the beginning of a future technology that I mentioned earlier. It is a robot that can represent its owner without its presence.
Last year, we presented the first model representing a doctor who can remotely examine his patient with the help of the robot. In some regions, this is the only solution, so that they can use the help of the most qualified specialist who understands the problem best.
In the fall, we will present our model for businessmen and company managers. A bot can represent countless users.
In the imagination of many science fiction writers and directors, robots in the future will have high intelligence, often even higher than humans. Could this ever become a reality?
It would be very difficult to produce an electronic system with human-level intelligence. This is because humans have one of the most sophisticated learning mechanisms.
Even so, it took years for a person to figure out how to cross over to the other side of the world or even learning some languages can be difficult. It is a very slow process and it is not even possible to make robots as intelligent as humans. Certainly not in the next few decades. We can meet many systems that can communicate and know many things, such as the Siri assistant or the Wolfram Alpha knowledge base.
These applications are constantly getting better and better, but they still cannot be called high-level artificial intelligence.
The development of communication between humans and machines has accelerated. Here, for example, is the voice monitor: Specialists in robot technology spared no time, work, effort and financial resources to work on this development, but in the end they were ahead of the mobile technology manufacturing companies. This is how we get from the creator to the users. The gaming industry has also produced many high-budget products that are also used in robotics. This includes, for example, the Kinect motion sensor system. These technologies can now be integrated into robots.
For example, it is possible to create motion-sensing military robots that recognize the tactical gestures of soldiers.
Their military robots took part in exploring the internal condition of the damaged Fukushima power plant. Did you have to make any modifications to them, such as equipping them with radiation shielding?
Not at all. These robots are designed to withstand the harshest of conditions, be it extreme temperatures, radiation or harsh chemicals.
We didn’t change anything because there was no time. Actually, after the disaster, we immediately sent the robots to Japan. At that time, it was not yet known what state the reactor was in, or whether it had completely melted down. There’s no way to explore places like this except with robots, so we all agreed that this was the right thing to do.
We immediately dispatched the robot’s equipment worth half a million dollars, as well as our technicians, who prepared the operator of the robot on the spot.
At the beginning, we expected the Roomba robot to remain functional in the inner zone for at least three days and be able to help us. Towards the end, the robot was still working, analyzing the condition of the building’s structural elements every single day and being able to move the radioactive materials.
iRobot has also been involved in space technology developments. Exactly which iRobot model was the one that walked in space?
Several elements of the Mars exploration vehicles were based on technologies that iRobot developed and that I was involved in during my studies at MIT before I founded the company. In the summer, for example, I worked for the company JPL Robotics, where I managed to make my first tiny robot, which, when placed on the ground, moved from one side of the room to the other and collected objects. I named him Tooth. His improved version was Rocky, whose technology was based on Tooth. Basically, the Rocky 6 generation robots are the ones that were sent to Mars.
Within the framework of one of the iRobot projects, we created a carbon fiber micro-robot, which was placed in a miniature spaceship. After being launched from Edwards Air Force Base, this micro-robot has proven that it can take off, land and successfully control a miniature spacecraft. NASA took over the project and used it for various tests and measurements during the Pathfinder space missions.
We did not participate directly in the space research programs, but we did participate in the preparations. It fills me with pride to have my name on the Spirit spacecraft.
Robotics can be a controversial topic among humans. Robots are taking people’s jobs, drones can track and eliminate their targets, and automated machines can replace human intervention. Do you think these fears are justified?
All technology can be used for good and less good. iRobot’s main goal is to serve people. Roomba Robots should help people. Roomba vacuum cleaners make everyday life easier and do not take away jobs, they save us time and keep our apartment clean.
The fear that robots will take people’s jobs is relatively common, but robotic technology offers many new job opportunities and they are much more interesting, such as maintenance tasks and much safer than firemen. The work of technicians, programmers and designers will also be needed.
It is clear that the robotics industry is growing, and with time more and more things are changing in our everyday lives. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
get to know more: Roomba creators