When I spoke with iRobot’s Colin Angle earlier this summer, he said that iRobot OS, the latest software operating system for its robotic vacuums and mops, would give its home bots a deeper understanding of your home and its 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 perspective, 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, more importantly, how they change. It knows where your kitchen is, where your kids’ rooms are, where your couch is (and how new it is), and if you recently turned the guest room into a nursery.
This type of data is digital gold for a company whose primary goal is to sell you more stuff. While I’m interested to see how Amazon can leverage iRobot’s technology to enhance its smart home ambitions, many are right to be concerned about the privacy implications. People want home automation to work better, but they don’t want to give up the intimate details of their lives for convenience.
This is an enigma throughout the world of technology, but in our homes it is much more personal. from amazon data sharing history with police departments through its Ring subsidiary, combined with its “always listening (for the wake word)” Echo smart speakers and now its in-depth knowledge of your floor plan, give you a pretty complete picture of your daily life.
Each of iRobot’s connected Roomba vacuums and mops walks through homes several times a week, mapping and reallocating spaces. In his latest model, the j7, iRobot added an AI-powered front camera that Angle says 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 this 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 over the company (for a relative bargain: iRobot just reported a 30 percent decrease in income in the face of increased competition) to get a detailed look inside our homes. Why? Because knowing your floor plan provides context. And in the smart home where Amazon is making a major play, context is king.
“We really believe in ambient intelligence – an environment where AI weaves your devices together so they can deliver so much more than any one device could on its own,” Marja Koopmans, director of Alexa smart home, told me. an interview last month. Ambient intelligence requires multiple data points to work. With detailed maps of our homes and the ability to communicate directly with more smart home devices once the material arrivesAmazon’s vision of ambient intelligence in the smart home suddenly becomes much more attainable.
Astro – from Amazon “Lovely” home robot – was probably an attempt to obtain that data. The robot has good mapping capabilities, powered by sensors and cameras that let you know everything from where the fridge is to what room it’s currently in. Clearly, Amazon already had the ability to do what iRobot does. But at $1,000 and with limited capabilities (it couldn’t vacuum your house) and no general release date, Astro won’t be getting that information for Amazon any time soon.
Ring Always Home Camera it has similar mapping capabilities, allowing the flying camera to safely navigate your home. That product has more reach than Astro at only $250 and has a very clear security focus. But it is not yet available to buy.
So what iRobot brings to Amazon is context at scale. As Angle told me back in May, “The barrier to the next level of AI in robotics is not better AI. It’s the context,” says Angle. “We’ve been able to understand the expression ‘go to the kitchen and get me a beer’ for a decade. But if I don’t know where the kitchen is, and I don’t know where the fridge is, and I don’t know what a beer looks like, it doesn’t really matter if I understand your words.” iRobot OS provides some of that context, and because it’s cloud-based, you can easily share information with other devices. (Currently, users can opt out of Roomba’s Smart Maps feature, which stores map data and shares it between iRobot devices.)
With context, the smart home gets smarter; devices can work better and work together without the homeowner having to program or ask 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 [know] ‘I am in the kitchen. It’s okay to make more noise. And there are many sources of pollutants here.’ Compared to playing him in a bedroom, that would be different,” says Angle.
Amazon now owns four smart home brands (in addition to its Alexa platform, anchored by its Echo smart speakers and smart displays): home security company Ring, budget camera company Blink, and mesh Wi-Fi pioneers. Eero. Throw in iRobot and Amazon has many of the elements needed to create a quasi-sentient smart home, one that can anticipate what you want it to do and do it without being asked. This is something that Amazon has already started to do with its Hunches feature.
But consumer confidence is a major hurdle. Amazon will have to do a lot more to prove itself worthy of this kind of unrestricted access to your home. Today, for many people, more comfort is simply not worth it.
Photograph by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy/The Verge