Integrating Robots into Our Homes, Healthcare, and Beyond

A Conversation with Colin Angle, Chairman, CEO, and Co-Founder, iRobot; hosted by Patrick Lane, Technology Correspondent, The Economist

CE: Robot industry is one of the most disappointingly paced. If we can get our minds around robot as a machine that connects perception with robotics and action, we’ll start seeing more of it. We are seeing the first mainstreaming.

In Spain, one of three vacuum cleaners sold is a robot. “At least we have a foothold in the door of the home today. . . It’s about 1/100th of where we’ll end up.”

If you don’t like doing it and have to do it frequently, you should have a robot to do. Vacuuming is near number one. Folding laundry is another. Wet cleaning, disinfecting floors, tidying up your home (requires arms and manipulators, which is further out)

PL: What about a task delegator robot?

CE: The number of robots people should interact with is really about 1-1.5. Anything else is too much. What you should really do is have point solutions: small robots, a robot that you can speak to that navigates and understands your home, that can speak to other robots. That head of household ties the household together: can turn on your tv, order food, etc.

This vision is not decades away, thanks to the mobile industry. The smart phone industry has solved all kinds of problems. Now the video gaming industry has blown by us, bringing with it the gestural tech of Kinect. Suddenly, you can start avoiding and building a robot that can move around your home and respond to gestural, touch screen inputs. Within a few months we’ll begin to start working on this.

The star he steers by: We need to expand our ability to live independently in our home extensively. The cost of assisted living is 10,000/ month. If we’re going to avoid a financial or technical crisis, we need a new model. If you can use connectivity, the network, robots, you can stay home and let the medicine, doctors, etc come to you. Robots can administer medicine, check on side effects, ailments, and give peace of mind to your family.

In Touch Health (FiReStarter) already creates robots, used in hospitals in Bermuda and Africa, that allow doctors to diagnose patients remotely.

PL: Robots in the outdoors are good at getting to places people cant and keeping people safe.

CE: We’ve got 4,500 robots in Afghanistan defusing roadside bombs. It’s been an OK business for us, but mostly it’s a chance to save lives.

Also participated in two of the worst environmental disasters.

PL: How much autonomy can you give robots, which may or may not be able to inflict harm? Are there ways of making it do as little damage as possible?

CE: A robot should not be making life or death decisions. They can and will not be making those decisions any time in the future. There is strict doctrine that there needs to be a man attached to them.

“Man will not come out of the loop, at least not in my lifetime.”

Military discussion of robots: What happens if robot misfires?

How to make the robot industry take off? Make one with true human intelligence.

It is a very viable strategy to rent a brain. Touch screens needed to happen, robot platforms needed to decrease in price point.