Interview of an iRbobot founder

An interesting interview of Helen Greiner, one of the founder of iRobot (the company which is doing the vaccum cleaner robot Roomba as well as tactical military robots used in Iraq).

Knowledge@Wharton: I don't think anyone would object to having a robot vacuum the floor, but do you find resistance to robots as a concept -- doing tasks that humans have been doing? Is there a science fiction element of this that makes people nervous?

Greiner: I don't really think so. When computers first came out, you had a lot of people worried that computers were going to obsolete humans and that they were going to take over everything. So you had everything from [the movie] The Colossus Project to Hal in 2001. I think it's a way for society to work through their fears. Once people have a computer on their desk and they see what it's good at doing and, more especially, what it's not good at doing, they don't have the same fear anymore. It's the same with robots. Once people have a Roomba in their home and it's doing the sweeping and vacuuming for them, but they see the things it can't do yet, they really don't fear robots taking over the world.

"Naming" the object seems to be one interesting behavior that popped up:

The only thing in their experience that has acted that way has been a pet. So people actually start to name it. You don't see anyone name their toasters but a lot of people tell me they have named their Roomba.

I would just ponder this by saying that I've seen some friends (few years ago, while living alltogether in a big condo) calling their old-school vacuum cleaner "Daisy". Was it already a trend to call certain kind of home artifacts?

It's also refreshing to hear what she says about how people tinker:

Knowledge@Wharton: Have you heard stories of what people have done with this?

Greiner: Well, a few stories. One [involved] making a webcam on wheels so you can control your robot through the Internet and see what the robot sees and hear what the robot hears as you drive it around. Somebody made a robotic plant-moving system, so plants can always be in the sun. Someone was talking about making a swimming pool-skimming robot. And most recently, just this past week, some hackers did a physical instantiation of the video game Frogger. Now we don't condone this type of activity [laughs], but it shows you just where creativity can go when you make a system open.

The openness of the system is indeed FUNDAMENTAL if you want creative things to happen.

Why do I blog this? robots are an interesting domain where innovation starts to appear, leaving the anthropomorphic paradigm to become closer to the pervasive computing world in which objects are interconnected and open (so that people can modify them).