When I chatted with iRobot’s Colin Angle earlier this summer, he stated the company’s newest software operating system for its robot vacuums and mops, iRobot OS, would give its household bots a better grasp of your home and your routines. With the announcement today that Amazon has purchased iRobot for $1.7 billion, this takes on a whole new meaning.
From a smart home standpoint, it becomes apparent that Amazon wants iRobot for the maps it makes in order to have a deep knowledge of our houses. The vacuum firm is well-versed with our floor designs and, more importantly, how they evolve. It knows where your kitchen is, where your children’s rooms are, where your couch is (and how new it is), and whether or not you just converted the guest room into a nursery.
To a firm whose main goal is to sell you more products, this sort of data is digital gold. While I’m curious to see how Amazon may use iRobot’s technology to further its smart home goals, many people are correct to be worried about the privacy implications. People want home automation to perform better, but they don’t want to give up personal information in exchange for more convenience.
This is a problem across the computer industry, but it’s considerably more intimate in our homes. Amazon’s history of exchanging data with police agencies through its subsidiary Ring, along with its “always listening (for the wake word)” Echo smart speakers and now its detailed knowledge of your floor layout, provide it with a rather complete picture of your everyday life.
iRobot’s networked Roomba vacuums and mops trundle through houses many times each week, mapping and remapping the rooms. iRobot introduced a front-facing, AI-powered camera to its newest model, the j7, which, according to Angle, has spotted more than 43 million things in people’s homes. For navigation, some versions use a low-resolution camera that looks towards the ceiling.
All of this suggests that the acquisition isn’t about robotics; if that was the case, Amazon would have purchased iRobot years ago. Instead, it most likely acquired the firm (at a relative bargain — iRobot just announced a 30% sales loss in the face of increased competition) in order to have a thorough view inside our houses. Why? Because having a floor plan gives you perspective. And context is key in the smart home, which Amazon is heavily investing in.
“We strongly believe in ambient intelligence — an ecosystem where your gadgets are stitched together by AI so that they can give much more than any device could do on its own,” Marja Koopmans, head of Alexa smart home, told me last month in an interview. Ambient intelligence necessitates the collection of various data points. Amazon’s goal of ambient intelligence in the smart home suddenly becomes a lot more achievable with precise maps of our houses and the ability to connect directly with additional smart home devices once Matter arrives.
Astro, Amazon’s “adorable” house bot, was most likely an effort to get such information. The robot has strong mapping skills, thanks to sensors and cameras that tell it anything from where the fridge is to which room you are in. Amazon clearly had the capacity to accomplish what iRobot does. But, at a thousand dollars, with limited capabilities (it can’t clean your house) and no public release date, Astro isn’t going to be obtaining that information for Amazon anytime soon.
The mapping capabilities of Ring’s Always House Cam are comparable, enabling the flying camera to securely traverse your home. That product has a broader reach than Astro since it is just $250 and has a clear security emphasis. However, it is still not for sale.
So, iRobot delivers context at scale to Amazon. “The hurdle to the next level of AI in robotics isn’t greater AI,” Angle told me in May. “It’s the context,” Angle explains. “For a decade, we’ve understood the phrase ‘go to the kitchen and bring me a drink.’ But if I don’t know where the kitchen is, or where the refrigerator is, or what a beer looks like, it doesn’t really matter whether I comprehend your words.” iRobot OS gives part of that context and, since it is cloud-based, it can simply share the data with other devices. (At the moment, customers may disable Roomba’s Smart Maps function, which keeps mapping data and distributes it with iRobot units.)
The smart home grows smarter with context; devices may operate better and together without the homeowner needing to configure or prompt them to do so. Angle presented a linked air purifier as an example (iRobot, so now Amazon, owns Aeris air purifiers). Using the iRobot OS cloud, the air purifier could automatically determine which room it was in. “It’d know ‘I’m in the kitchen.'” It is OK to create greater noise. And there are several sources of pollution here.’ “Its job in a bedroom would be different,” Angle explains.
Amazon now owns four smart home businesses (in addition to its Alexa platform, which is centered by its Echo smart speakers and smart displays): Ring, Blink, and mesh Wi-Fi pioneers Eero. Add in iRobot, and Amazon has many of the ingredients for an almost sentient smart home, one that can predict what you want and accomplish it without your asking. Amazon has already begun to do this with their Hunches function.
However, customer trust is a huge impediment. Amazon will need to do a lot more to demonstrate its worthiness of such unrestricted access to your house. More convenience nowadays just does not seem worth the sacrifice for many people.