iRobot CEO tells us why "robots should not have legs"
To many the word "robot" conjures up images of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, Honda's Asimo, Will Smith's friend iRobot from the movie, and maybe Marvin the depressed robot from Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. However, for Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, the company behind the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner "Robots shouldn't have legs".
"My favourite robot in Star Wars isn't C-3P0 or R2-D2, but the little droid that's on the death star zipping around the Stormtroopers", comments Angle. "Function must dictate design".
Although Angle says that it wasn't the inspiration for the Roomba vacuum cleaner robot, it's clear that the droids of sci-fi movies have left an impression on the professional robot maker.
"Robots should not have legs. Arms make sense, a head makes sense. We don't have wheels, but robots can".
Angle, who has been building robots for over 20 years, got into the business frustrated by the lack of practical robots available for people to enjoy, compared to the "cool sexy demos" he was seeing for research projects.
"I had a desire for a practical robot industry to exist", Angle tells Pocket-lint on the eve of iRobot's 20th anniversary celebration.
The company makes consumer and military robots as well as having an large R&D department that chases government grant funding by pushing the boundaries of what is possible.
"We've achieved about zero per cent of what we want so far".
Angle, spurned on by a love of Lego and Fisher Technic toys as a child, and later achieving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in computer science, both from MIT, believes a very different approach to robots needs to be taken to the ones that we see in sci-fi movies.
Criticising Sony and Honda, Angle believes that humanoid based robots, like the latter's Asimo and former's, now canned, Qrio robots, are "fantastic but worthless".
"In Japan, robots are used as status symbols and marketing tools. They [the companies] are not accountable to make profit, but dreams", quips Angle, perhaps slightly jealous at the marketing budgets compared to his. "Sony created fantastic robot technology that was utterly useless".
Where Angle believes iRobot is different is that the company lives and breaths robots - a, "pure play robot company" as he describes it. It's all it does, meaning if it can't convince the public to buy its robots the money doesn't come in.
"Would we make Qrio? Heck no", says Angle wiping any hope that the company will one day venture into more humanoid "Rosie the robot" from the Jetsons types. And he has a point. Why would you design a robot to push around a standard vacuum cleaner? It doesn't make sense. Each robot itself should be dedicated to its task.
So are we to live in a "Wall-e" styled future with dozens of service bots doing specific tasks allowing us to just enjoy life rather than doing boring chores like mopping the floor or folding the laundry? No, says Angle. In fact it's going to be even "weirder than that, why stop at the machines?"
"How long will it take before people start electively upgrading themselves?" Angle questions. "Expect your kids' grandkids to get a robotic arm just to piss you off".
For a brief moment, drenched in the light of the afternoon sun in the sitting room of the ninth floor New York hotel suite, we chill ourselves and marvel at what mankind will do to itself given the means, but, and as much as Pocket-lint would love to theorise about life in 2050, it's the not quite the here and nearly now that we're hoping Mr Angle can help us out with. So what about just the next couple of years, then? Connected robots, we're told, is the answer.
Imagine a scenario whereby a central "butler" robot manages a selection of other bots around your house. Using gesture and voice commands, very much like what we will see with the new camera based accessory for Microsoft's Xbox 360, the Microsoft Kinect, Angle foresees a not too distance future, where home owners will be able to ask the butler robot to organise the household chores.
"Kinect applies to robots as much as it does video games", says the CEO. "Gesture is an important part of communication".
While some will see the need to talk to a specific device antiquated, compared to the concept of the all seeing, always waiting for commands Star Trek computer, Angle believes it will be a much cheaper and friendlier version to live with.
"Do you really want to live in a Star Trek home where all your actions are monitored, or would you prefer to interact with something physical?"
He could be right, after all retro fitting a house so every room has sensors in it, ready to receive your commands, would be considerably more expensive than just plonking a butler robot in the kitchen.
"Don't make the house smart, but fill the house with smart things", he chimes, "and besides, robots convey a sense of physicality".
In fact, research has shown that the physicality of robots help people accept them more. Owners give roomba, the iRobot vacuum cleaner, names, make costumes for them and generally treat them as part of the family, we're told by some of the iRobot staff.
So when can we expect to come home and be greeted by this robot butler? It all comes down to expense rather than technology.
"All of the tech is available for us to make it now", says the CEO before quickly calculating on the spot how much he would charge Pocket-lint to have one made tomorrow; "It would cost $30,000. The question is, would you pay $30,000?"
And there lies the problem it seems. While the entry level iRobot Roomba costs around £250 in the UK, paying over £20,000 for a robot is a considerably larger investment and one that you're unlikely to want to make at the moment. We certainly don't. But as the costs come down and the technology gets better, the company hopes that more and more robots will be cropping up in homes of your friends and maybe even yours.
"Over 25 per cent of those buying a vacuum cleaner over the next 12 months will 'go robot'", Angle cites. The company has to date only sold 5 million robots in its 20-year life span, but if that 25 per cent really do "go robot" that's a massive boost to a fledging industry and one that is likely to propel it into the mainstream, something Colin Angle already believes is the case.
"People are now considering it and, when you look at the time savings, it's easy to see why".
So, will the company be ready for the rush?
Angle believes they will be, ready with the next wave of technology to make us want to keep coming back for more. So, while that means Asimo is unlikely to ever open the door when you return from a tough day at work, there might just be a fleet of robots who've done all the housework for you instead.