When I spoke to Colin Angle of iRobot earlier this summer, he said iRobot OS, the latest software operating system for his vacuum and mop robots, would provide his home robots with a deeper understanding of your home and of your habits. This takes on a whole new meaning with today’s news that Amazon has bought iRobot for $ 1.7 billion.
From a smart home standpoint, it seems clear that Amazon wants iRobot for the maps it generates to give it that deep understanding of our homes. The vacuum company has detailed knowledge of our floor plans and, most importantly, how they change. It knows where your kitchen is, what your kids’ rooms are, where your sofa is (and how new it is) and if you’ve recently turned your guest room into a nursery.
This type of data is digital gold for a company whose primary purpose is to sell you more stuff. While I’m interested in seeing how Amazon can leverage iRobot’s technology to enhance its smart home ambitions, many are right to worry about the privacy implications. People want home automation to work better, but they don’t want to give up the intimate details of their life for added convenience.
This is a conundrum in the entire technological world, but in our homes it is much more personal. Amazon’s story of sharing data with police departments through its subsidiary Ring, combined with its “always listening (for the password)” Echo smart speakers and now its in-depth knowledge of your floor plan, they give a fairly complete picture of your daily life.
Each of iRobot’s connected Roomba vacuums and mops roam the houses several times a week, mapping and remapping spaces. On its latest model, the j7, iRobot has added an AI-powered front camera that, according to Angle, has detected more than 43 million objects in people’s homes. Other models have a low-resolution camera that points to the ceiling for navigation.
All of which makes it likely that this purchase is not about robotics; if that’s what Amazon wanted, it would have bought iRobot years ago. Instead, he probably took the company (for a relative deal – iRobot just reported a 30 percent drop in revenue in the face of growing competition) to take a detailed look inside our homes. How come? Because knowing your floor plan provides context. And in the smart home that Amazon is playing a major game for, context is king.
“We truly believe in ambient intelligence, an environment where your devices are woven together by artificial intelligence so that they can offer so much more than any device alone could,” Marja told me in an interview last month. Koopmans, director of Alexa smart home. Ambient intelligence requires multiple data points to function. With detailed maps of our homes and the ability to communicate directly with multiple smart home devices once Matter arrives, Amazon’s vision of ambient intelligence in the smart home suddenly becomes much more attainable.
Astro, Amazon’s lovable home robot, was likely an attempt to get that data. The robot has good mapping capabilities, powered by sensors and cameras that let it know everything from where the refrigerator is to which room you are currently in. Clearly, Amazon already had the ability to do what iRobot does. But for a thousand dollars and with limited capacities (it couldn’t vacuum your home) and no general release date, Astro won’t be getting this information for Amazon anytime soon.
Ring’s Always Home Cam has similar mapping capabilities, allowing the flying camera to navigate your home safely. That product has a greater reach than Astro, as it costs just $ 250 and has a very clear focus on security. But it is not yet available for purchase.
So, what iRobot brings to Amazon is the large-scale context. As Angle told me in May, “The barrier to the next level of AI in robotics isn’t better AI. It’s context,” says Angle. “We were able to understand the expression ‘go to the kitchen and bring me a beer ‘for a decade. But if I don’t know where the kitchen is, and I don’t know where the refrigerator is, and I don’t know what a beer looks like, it doesn’t really matter if it understands your words. ”iRobot OS provides some of that. context, and because it is cloud-based, it can easily share information with other devices. (Currently, users can disable Roomba’s Smart Maps feature, which stores mapping data and shares it between iRobot devices.)
With context, the smart home becomes smarter; devices can work better and work together without the homeowner having to program them or require them to do so. Angle used the example of a connected air purifier (iRobot, so now Amazon, owns Aeris air purifiers). The air purifier could automatically know which room it was in using the iRobot OS cloud. “Would be [know] ‘I’m in the kitchen. It’s okay to make more noise. And there are many sources of pollutants here. ‘ Compared to his role in a bedroom, it would be different, ”says Angle.
Amazon now owns four smart home brands (in addition to its Alexa platform, anchored to its Echo smart speakers and smart displays): home security company Ring, budget camera company Blink, and the Eero mesh Wi-Fi pioneers. Add iRobot and Amazon has many of the elements needed to create an almost sentient smart home that can anticipate what you want it to do and do it without you asking. This is something Amazon has already started doing with its Hunches feature.
But consumer confidence is a major obstacle. Amazon will have to do a lot more to prove it is worthy of this kind of unrestricted access to your home. Today, for many people, greater convenience is not worth the compromise.
Photograph by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge