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More than just vacuums: iRobot is building the platform for the robots of the future

The company is revamping the software that powers its cleaning robots, with an eye toward helpful machines of all kinds in the future.

More than just vacuums: iRobot is building the platform for the robots of the future

Is this the first generation of home robots that do more than just what we need them to?

Image: iRobot

Consider the dishwasher.

It is, whether you realize it or not, a very capable robot. You load it up, ask it to complete a task, and without fail, it cleans your dishes night in, night out. But most of the devices in our homes, especially the ones that are supposed to be "smart," are often complicated products that require someone with a modicum of technical know-how to set up, or, more importantly, troubleshoot when they stop working.

Machines are rarely contextually intelligent. A dishwasher is very good at washing dishes, but it can't load itself, nor could it tell you that you tend to wash your dishes every night at 10 p.m., but if you ran it at 3 a.m., you'd save on energy. We're starting to see examples of this in software, but few companies have been able to merge the difficult tasks of building automated software and hardware into something that can adapt to the world it lives in. But iRobot, the maker of Roomba vacuums, may have just started to bridge that gap.

iRobot is unveiling Genius Home Intelligence, a rethinking from the ground up of how its robots do their jobs. The most immediate change users will see is a revamped iRobot app, which will be available in the App Store on Tuesday. It'll be a far more intuitive, user-focused product than the previous version, but more importantly, according to the company's co-founder and CEO Colin Angle, it lays the groundwork for a future where robots of all kinds can operate safely in your home. Today's robots can follow simple tasks, just like our dear dishwashers, but tomorrow's won't even have to wait for us to ask them to do something — they'll just know.

A new, smarter system

Genius is a complete reimagining of what iRobot offers its customers, Angle told me. Previously, the iRobot app was extremely simple: Opening it up, you were just greeted with a white screen and a large green button that said "clean."

"Really what we were telling everybody is, 'We've got this: Push the button, and everything is just going to be taken care of, the robot is just going to do the right thing,'" Angle said. But in the past, people were skeptical that robots could efficiently clean their entire house. "Every sale involves getting the buyer over that skeptical barrier," Angle said. But that gap, he admitted, between what we now expect from our devices thanks to products like the Amazon Echo and modern smartphones, is closing.

Roombas now have contextual awareness of their environments, which can be called upon by voice assistants. Image: iRobot

Now, Angle says, "people flipped from being skeptical to being impatient that the robot couldn't do more." And after listening to user feedback about what people actually wanted out of the robots, the company decided something deeper than the current one-button app was required. iRobot has already been working on building smarter mapping technology in its robots, allowing the machines to learn what area of a house is the kitchen, the living room and so on, but with the Genius redesign, the technology is going to get far more granular.

Through the app, iRobot's Roomba will now be able to tell you when it thinks it's found certain objects, like a sofa, tables or kitchen counters. You can then tell the robot just to clean those areas. Say you've just finished cooking and know you were not the tidiest chef, you can use the app to send your robot to clean up after your mess. And using partnerships with Amazon Alexa and Google Home, you can ask your voice assistant to do it for you. By just saying, "Alexa, clean under the kitchen counter," the robot will venture out, without any additional clarification needed.

You can take these automations even further, setting up routines for specific tasks you often do — like cleaning up after dinner, or cleaning up a playroom before bedtime — that you can call upon just like a specific task. But where the software starts to take on a life of its own is when the robots have enough data to actually start making recommendations. If the system realizes that you tend to always clean at 7 p.m. or send the robot out every Monday, it'll ask if you want the robot to automatically start cleaning at that time without you having to ask it. "We've got to get away from magic incantations," Angle said, of relying on Alexa and others to carry out your demands.

iRobot's software will now go deeper than daily or spot cleans to help people with the context of their own lives. It can now recommend deeper cleanings at certain times of the year around your allergies or your pets' shedding season, if you decide you want to give it that information. You can also select areas of the maps the robots create to keep out of; if you have dog bowls on the floor, for example, you could highlight them in the map and tell the bots to avoid them. Using other connected devices that can track whether someone is in a room or not, like an Ecobee thermostat, Roombas can also be set to run when those other devices alert them that the house is empty.

Roomba will now know to not smash into your dog's bowls. Image: iRobot

Redesigning for the pandemic and beyond

In the 18 years since Roomba first launched, Angle said the company has managed to capture roughly 80% of the robotic vacuum market as well as a sizable chunk of the overall vacuum market. It has 6.9 million connected vacuums (up from 4 million the year before, Angle said), and perhaps unsurprisingly, the pandemic has helped drive new business. "What happened as people started working from home, they were more aware of how dirty their home was," Angle said.

More people have been running their machines more often during the last few months, Angle said, which also helped shore up some of the thinking behind the Genius redesign. "After Tesla, we have probably one of the largest fleets out there," he added. Although cleaning missions on Roombas are up during the pandemic, so are cancelations. People have set up basic automations the current app offers (cleaning at a certain time on a given day), but are frustrated by that with their new schedules at home. "Cleaning at times when it's going to come over, annoy you, and you're going to turn it off — that's a big failure," Angle said. With Genius, people can provide recommendations for automations based on what people with similar homes tend to do.

With everything iRobot is announcing, Angle was quick to point out that this software was very much version 1.0, saying version 2.0 should be out in six months, and the next version six months after that. "This focus on the control of the robot, it's only going to get more natural, and the type of collaboration that is possible between the owner and the robot will continue to grow," Angle said. "Our ambitions are not just to have an intelligence system that drives vacuuming robots, but instead, an intelligence system that drives all robots."

iRobot's products start to fit more fully into your life. Image: iRobot

Today's software is a first step toward that grander vision. The robots iRobot currently sells will get more intuitive, and the robots it hopes to build in the future will only be able to safely operate in the home because of the context first gleaned by these 1.0 models.

"The bleeding edge of AI for robotics is all about understanding the environment so that the robot can have some context as to where to go, and understanding the will and desires of the customer," Angle said. "They're actually quite linked, because if you don't know different places, how people refer to them, it's very difficult to interpret the commands from the user."

For now, that means better vacuuming robots, but in future iterations of the Genius software, that could be all sorts of robots that are designed for the home. One of Angle and iRobot's long-term goals is to build elder-care robots that extend people's ability to live on their own at home independently. "If you wanted to build an elder-care robot, the understanding of the home, the ability to listen to the requests of the people that the robot serves — just imagine how critical that is," Angle said. "The trust that the owner of the robot could develop by feeling like I have tremendous flexibility in the types of things that I can take to the robot."

Robots need to be able to understand higher-level commands to be able to operate in our homes, Angle said. You're not going to program a bot to track every step between where it is and the mailbox, how to reach in and grab your mail, and how to navigate to you — you just want to be able to say, "Go get the mail for me." And that's how Angle sees the Genius revamp: "What we're doing with iRobot Genius is laying the foundation for rich man-machine interaction."

But it's still going to take an ecosystem of partners to get there. No one company has proven it can do it all yet, or that it even wants to, according to Angle. "Back 10 years ago, I expected Apple to go and create the ultimate smart-home experience — they kind of went a different direction," Angle said. "Maybe they could do it in the future, but they don't have all the pieces they would need to pull it together, and Google and Amazon have slightly different missions."

Angle sees players in more specific fields — like how iRobot has primarily concentrated on its cleaning bots — as more likely to succeed as part of a larger partnership with voice platforms and other IoT manufacturers.

"I think, probably in the next three, four or five years, the best smart-home experiences [will be] driven by close partnerships between companies that have a shared vision of trying to go and make it easy for it all to work."

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