How iRobot Could Control Your Smart Home And Become Your Butler

An interview with Colin Angle, Roomba's creator
Colin Angle
Photograph by Alex Gagne

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In 2002, Colin Angle sent his army of Roombas into our homes. For years they’ve done a great job sucking up dirt. His newest model, the 980, does a heck of a lot more. It maps your home so a future model might one day navigate it as your personal butler. Angle sat down with Popular Science to tell us how technology will do even more of our dirty work.

Popular Science: How does a Roomba create a map?

Colin Angle: Because it’s a vacuum, its mission in life is to get everywhere it can get to. As it moves around your home, it uses optical sensors and software to document its journey. It says, “There’s nothing here, there’s something here,” etc. That’s how it builds a map, how it understands where your rooms are. You could build a platform on that and use your cellphone to track family members in the house—like find where your husband is and have your home perform intelligent tasks to suit his location.

PS: Like what?

CA: When you map people’s movements, you start extracting intent. For instance, when someone is in the living room, they probably want to watch TV, right? You can turn on the television, give a selection of their three favorite channels, and then turn it off when they leave the room.

PS: So how does that get us to the smart home of the future?

CA: As the maps get better, as we add more 3-D information about what’s in your home, it’s easy to imagine programming a house to stay organized, to keep the trash can where it goes, toys, magazines, and more. I imagine a robot, like a butler, with an arm that helps you clean things and fix things. It would provide security during the day, look for spills. And when you come home, it would interact with you. Or not.

PS: What do you mean?

CA: If you want privacy, you can send the butler away. The smart home that I think of is not like other people imagine, this Starship Enterprise interface where the house is omniscient and omnipotent and always monitoring. That idea requires big expenses, and the concept of privacy is blurred. What I’m talking about is a distinct thing that is either with you or not with you. If it’s not with you, you have privacy.

PS: Sounds like a companion bot.

CA: It can be. People already love to anthropomorphize their Roombas and name them. The Roomba on the main floor of our house is Roswell. At first our little poodle, Daphne, was very skeptical of Roswell and liked to try to chase its side brush. But quite quickly Roswell and Daphne have formed a fine relationship, and Daphne occasionally can be seen hanging out with Roswell waiting for something to happen.

This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Roomba’s Creator And His Robot Butlers.”