When I spoke to iRobot’s Colin Angle earlier this summer, he said iRobot OS — the latest software operating system for its robot vacuums and mops — would provide its household bots with a deeper understanding of your home and your habits. Amazon’s purchase of iRobot has given this a whole new meaning.
Amazon seems to want iRobot from a smart-home perspective because it can generate maps that will give it a deeper understanding of our homes. The vacuum company has a detailed understanding of how our floors change and is able to provide us with floor plans. It knows where your kitchen is, which your kids’ rooms are, where your sofa is (and how new it is), and if you recently turned the guest room into a nursery.
This data is digital gold for a company that’s primary goal is to sell more products. While I’m interested to see how Amazon can leverage iRobot’s tech to improve its smart home ambitions, many are right to be concerned with 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 more convenience.
This is a conundrum throughout the tech world, but in our homes, it’s far more personal. Amazon’s history of sharing data with police departments through its subsidiary Ring, combined with its “always listening (for the wake word)” Echo smart speakers and now its thorough knowledge of your floor plan, give it a pretty complete picture of your daily life.
Each of iRobot’s connected Roomba vacuums and mops trundles around homes multiple times a week, mapping and remapping the spaces. On its latest model, the j7, iRobot added a front-facing, AI-powered camera that, according to Angle, has detected more than 43 million objects in people’s homes. Other models also have a low-resolution camera which points at the ceiling to aid navigation.
All this makes it likely this purchase isn’t about robotics; if that’s what Amazon wanted, it would have bought iRobot years ago. Instead, it probably picked up the company (for a relative bargain — iRobot just reported a 30 percent revenue decline in the face of increasing competition) to get a detailed look inside our homes. Why? Because it gives context to your floor plan. Context is the king in the smart home, which Amazon is making a big play for.
“We really believe in ambient intelligence — an environment where your devices are woven together by AI so they can offer far more than any device could do on its own,” Marja Koopmans, director of Alexa smart home, told me in an interview last month. Ambient intelligence is dependent on multiple data points in order to function. With detailed maps of our homes and the ability to communicate directly with more smart home devices once Matter arrives, Amazon’s vision of ambient intelligence in the smart home suddenly becomes a lot more attainable.
Astro — Amazon’s “lovable” home bot — was likely an attempt at getting that data. The robot is equipped with sensors and cameras to enable it to map the area, including where the fridge is located. It can also know which room you’re currently in. Clearly, Amazon already has the ability to perform what iRobot can. But for a thousand dollars and with limited capabilities (it couldn’t vacuum your home) and no general release date, Astro isn’t getting that info for Amazon anytime soon.
Ring’s Always Home Cam has similar mapping capabilities, allowing the flying camera to safely navigate your home. This product is more affordable than Astro and offers a clear security focus. But it’s still not available to buy.
Amazon benefits from iRobot’s ability to provide context at scale. 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’ve been able to understand the utterance ‘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 refrigerator is, and I don’t know what a beer looks like, it really doesn’t matter that I understand your words.” iRobot OS provides some of that context and, as it’s cloud-based, can easily share the information with other devices. (Currently, users can opt out of Roomba’s Smart Maps feature, which stores mapping data and shares it between iRobot devices.)
Context makes smart homes smarter. Smart devices can work more efficiently together and communicate with each other without the homeowner ever having to program or remind them. Angle illustrated this using an example of a connected purifier (iRobot now owns Aeris purifiers). The iRobot OS cloud could allow the air purifier to automatically identify which room it is in. “It would [know] ‘I’m in the kitchen. It’s okay to make more noise. And there are a lot of sources of pollutants here.’ Compared to its role in a bedroom, which would be different,” says Angle.
Amazon now owns four smart-home brands in addition to the Alexa platform (anchored by its Echo smart speaker and smart displays), including Ring, Blink, Ring Security, and Eero, which are all budget cameras. Add iRobot to the mix and Amazon has all the components needed to make a smart home that is almost autonomous. It can predict what you want and then do it without you asking. Amazon already has this feature called Hunches.
But trusting consumers is a big problem. Amazon will need to do a lot more to prove it’s worthy of this type of unfettered access to your home. Today, for many people, more convenience just doesn’t feel worth the tradeoff.
Photography by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy/The Verge
Source: The Verge