iRobot CEO Colin Angle on Data Privacy and Robots in the Home

In light of Amazon’s recent acquisition, we revisit our 7 September 2017 Q&A with iRobot’s CEO

8 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

iRobot CEO Colin Angle.
iRobot CEO Colin Angle.
Photo: iRobot

Editor’s note: Last week, Amazon announced that it was acquiring iRobot for $1.7 billion, prompting questions about how iRobot’s camera-equipped robot vacuums will protect the data that they collect about your home. In September of 2017, we spoke with iRobot CEO Colin Angle about iRobot’s approach to data privacy, directly addressing many similar concerns. “The views expressed in the Q&A from 2017 remain true,” iRobot told us. “Over the past several years, iRobot has continued to do more to strengthen, and clearly define, its stance on privacy and security. It’s important to note that iRobot takes product security and customer privacy very seriously. We know our customers invite us into their most personal spaces—their homes—because they trust that our products will help them do more. We take that trust seriously."

The article from 7 September 2017 follows:

About a month ago, iRobot CEO Colin Angle mentioned something about sharing Roomba mapping data in an interview with Reuters. It got turned into a data privacy kerfuffle in a way that iRobot did not intend and (probably) did not deserve, as evidenced by their immediate clarification that iRobot will not sell your data or share it without your consent.

Data privacy is important, of course, especially for devices that live in your home with you. But as robots get more capable, the amount of data that they collect will increase, and sharing that data in a useful, thoughtful, and considerate way could make smart homes way smarter. To understand how iRobot is going to make this happen, we spoke with Angle about keeping your data safe, integrating robots with the future smart home, and robots that can get you a beer.

Were you expecting such a strong reaction on data privacy when you spoke with Reuters?

Colin Angle: We were all a little surprised, but it gave us an opportunity to talk a little more explicitly about our plans on that front. In order for your house to work smarter, the house needs to understand itself. If you want to be able to say, “Turn on the lights in the kitchen,” then the home needs to be able to understand what the kitchen is, and what lights are in the kitchen. And if you want that to work with a third-party device, you need a trusted, customer-in-control mechanism to allow that to happen. So, it’s not about selling data, it’s about usefully linking together different devices to make your home actually smart. The interesting part is that the limiting factor in making your home intelligent isn’t AI, it’s context. And that’s what I was talking about to Reuters.

What kinds of data can my Roomba 980 collect about my home?

Angle: The robot uses its sensors [including its camera] to understand where it is and create visual landmarks, things that are visually distinctive that it can recognize again. As the robot explores the home as a vacuum, it knows where it is relative to where it started, and it creates a 2D map of the home. None of the images ever leave the robot; the only map information that leaves the robot would be if the customer says, “I would like to see where the robot went,” and then the map is processed into a prettier form and sent up to the cloud and to your phone. If you don’t want to see it, it stays on the robot and never leaves the robot.

Do you think that there’s a perception that these maps contain much more private information about our homes than they really do?

Angle: I think that if you look at [the map], you know exactly what it is. In the future, we’d like it to have more detail, so that you could give more sophisticated commands to the robot, from “Could you vacuum my kitchen?” in which case the robot needs to know where the kitchen is, to [in the future], “Go to the kitchen and get me a beer.” In that case, the robot needs to know where the kitchen is, where the refrigerator is, what a beer is, and how to grab it. We’re at a very benign point right now, and we’re trying to establish a foundation of trust with our customers about how they have control over their data. Over time, when we want our homes to be smarter, you’ll be able to allow your robot to better understand your home, so it can do things that you would like it to do, in a trusted fashion.

“Robots are viewed as creatures in the home. That’s both exciting and a little scary at the same time, because people anthropomorphize and attribute much more intelligence to them than they do to a smart speaker.”

Fundamentally, would the type of information that this sort of robot would be sharing with third parties be any more invasive than an Amazon Echo or Google Home?

Angle: Robots have this inherent explosive bit of interest, because they’re viewed as creatures in your home. That’s both exciting and a little scary at the same time, because people anthropomorphize and attribute much more intelligence to them than they do to a smart speaker. The amount of information that one of these robots collect is, in many ways, much less, but because it moves, it really captures people’s imagination.

Why do you think people seem to be more concerned about the idea of robots sharing their data?

Angle: I think it’s the idea that you’d have a “robot spy” in your home. Your home is your sanctuary, and people rightfully want their privacy. If we have something gathering data in their home, we’re beyond the point where a company can exploit their customers by stealthily gathering data and selling it to other people. The things you buy and place in your home are there to benefit you, not some third party. That was the fear that was unleashed by this idea of gathering and selling data unbeknownst to the customer. At iRobot, we’ve said, “Look, we’re not going to do this, we’re not going to sell your data.” We don’t even remember your map unless you tell us we can. Our very explicit strategy is building this trusted relationship with our customers, so that they feel good about the benefits that Roomba has.

How could robots like Roomba eventually come to understand more about our homes to enable more sophisticated functionality?

Angle: We’re in the land of R&D here, not Roomba products, but certainly there exists object-recognition technology that can determine what a refrigerator is, what a television is, what a table is. It would be pretty straightforward to say, if the room contains a refrigerator and an oven, it’s probably the kitchen. If a room has a bed, it’s probably a bedroom. You’ll never be 100 percent right, but rooms have purposes, and we’re certainly on a path where just by observing, a robot could identify a room.

What else do you think a robot like a Roomba could ultimately understand about your home?

Angle: We’re working on a number of things, some of which we’re happy to talk about and some of which less so at this point in time. But, why should your thermostat be on the wall? Why is one convenient place on the wall of one room the right place to measure temperature from, as opposed to where you like to sit? When you get into home control, your sensor location can be critically tied to the operation of your home. The opportunity to have the robot carry sensors with it around the home would allow the expansion from a point reading to a 2D or 3D map of those readings. As a result, the customer has a lot more control over [for example] how loud the stereo system is at a specific point, or what the temperature is at a specific point. You could also detect anomalies in the home if things are not working the way the customer would like them to work. Those are some simple examples of why moving a sensor around would matter.

“There’s a pretty sizeable market for webcams in the home. People are interested in security and intruder detection, and also in how their pets are doing. But invariably, what you want to see is not what your camera is pointing at. That’s something where a robot makes a lot more sense.”

Another good example would be, there’s actually a pretty sizeable market for webcams in the home. People are interested in security and intruder detection, and also in how their pets are doing. But invariably, what you want to see is not what your camera is currently pointing at. Some people fill up their homes with cameras, or you put a camera on a robot, and it moves to where you want to look. That’s something where a robot makes a lot more sense, and it’s interesting, if I want to have privacy in our home and yet still have a camera I can use, it’s actually a great idea to put one on a robot, because when the robot isn’t in the room with you, it can’t see you. So, the metaphor is a lot closer to if you had a butler in your home— when they’re not around, you can have your privacy back. This is a metaphor that I think works really well as we try to architect smart homes that are both aware of themselves, and yet afford privacy.

So a mobile robot equipped with sensors and mapping technology to be able to understand your home in this way could act like a smart home manager?

Angle: A spatial information organizer. There’s a hub with a chunk of software that controls everything, and that’s not necessarily the same thing as what the robot would do. What Apple and Amazon and various smart home companies are doing are trying to build hubs where everything connects to them, but in order for these hubs to be actually smart, they need what I call spatial content: They need to understand what’s a room, and what’s in a room for the entire home. Ultimately, the home itself is turning into a robot, and if the robot’s not aware of itself, it can’t do the right things.

“A robot needs to understand what’s a room, and what’s in a room, for the entire home. Ultimately, the home itself is turning into a robot, and if the robot’s not aware of itself, it can’t do the right things.”

So, if you wanted to walk into a room and have the lights turn on and the heat come up, and if you started watching television and then left the room and wanted the television to turn off in the room you’d left and turn on in the room you’d gone to, all of those types of experiences where the home is seamlessly reacting to you require an understanding of rooms and what’s in each room. You can brute force that with lots of cameras and custom programming for your home, but I don’t believe that installations like this can be successful or scale. The solution where you own a Roomba anyway, and it just gives you all this information enabling your home to be smart, that’s an exciting vision of how we’re actually going to get smart homes.

What’s your current feeling about mobile manipulators in the home?

Angle: We’re getting there. In order for manipulation in the home to make sense, you need to know where you are, right? What’s the point of being able to get something if you don’t know where it is. So this idea that we need these maps that have information embedded in them about where stuff is and the ability to actually segment objects—there’s a hierarchy of understanding. You need to know where a room is as a first step. You need to identify where objects are—that’s recognition of larger objects. Then you need to be able to open a door, say, and now you’re processing larger objects to find handles that you can reach out and grab. The ability to do all of these things exists in research labs, and to an increasing degree in manufacturing facilities. We’re past the land of invention of the proof of principle, and into the land of, could we reduce this to a consumer price point that would make sense to people in the home. We’re well on the way—we will definitely see this kind of robot in, I would say, five to 10 years, we’ll have robots that can go and get you a beer. I don’t think it’s going to be a lot shorter than that, because we have a few steps to go, but it’s less invention and more engineering.

We should note that we spoke with Angle just before Neato announced their new D7 robot vacuum, which adds persistent, actionable maps, arguably the first step towards a better understanding of the home. Since Roombas already have the ability to make a similar sort of map, based on the sorts of things that Angle spoke about in our interview we’re expecting to see iRobot add a substantial amount of intelligence and functionality to the Roomba in the very near future.

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