iRobot Announces Major Software Update, Shift From Pure Autonomy to Human-Robot Collaboration

“Thinking that autonomy was the destination was where I was just completely wrong,” iRobot CEO says

8 min read
Roomba cleaning a carpet
iRobot is announcing a major new software update that represents a significant shift of its overall approach to home robot autonomy. Humans are being brought back into the loop through software that tries to learn when, where, and how you clean so that your Roomba can adapt itself to your life rather than the other way around.
Photo: iRobot

Since the release of the very first Roomba in 2002, iRobot’s long-term goal has been to deliver cleaner floors in a way that’s effortless and invisible. Which sounds pretty great, right? And arguably, iRobot has managed to do exactly this, with its most recent generation of robot vacuums that make their own maps and empty their own dustbins. For those of us who trust our robots, this is awesome, but iRobot has gradually been realizing that many Roomba users either don’t want this level of autonomy, or aren’t ready for it.

Today, iRobot is announcing a major new update to its app that represents a significant shift of its overall approach to home robot autonomy. Humans are being brought back into the loop through software that tries to learn when, where, and how you clean so that your Roomba can adapt itself to your life rather than the other way around.

To understand why this is such a shift for iRobot, let’s take a very brief look back at how the Roomba interface has evolved over the last couple of decades. The first generation of Roomba had three buttons on it that allowed (or required) the user to select whether the room being vacuumed was small or medium or large in size. iRobot ditched that system one generation later, replacing the room size buttons with one single “clean” button. Programmable scheduling meant that users no longer needed to push any buttons at all, and with Roombas able to find their way back to their docking stations, all you needed to do was empty the dustbin. And with the most recent few generations (the S and i series), the dustbin emptying is also done for you, reducing direct interaction with the robot to once a month or less.

iRobot CEO Colin Angle iRobot CEO Colin Angle believes that working toward more intelligent human-robot collaboration is “the brave new frontier” of AI. “This whole journey has been earning the right to take this next step, because a robot can’t be responsive if it’s incompetent,” he says. “But thinking that autonomy was the destination was where I was just completely wrong.” Image: iRobot

The point that the top-end Roombas are at now reflects a goal that iRobot has been working toward since 2002: With autonomy, scheduling, and the clean base to empty the bin, you can set up your Roomba to vacuum when you’re not home, giving you cleaner floors every single day without you even being aware that the Roomba is hard at work while you’re out. It’s not just hands-off, it’s brain-off. No noise, no fuss, just things being cleaner thanks to the efforts of a robot that does its best to be invisible to you. Personally, I’ve been completely sold on this idea for home robots, and iRobot CEO Colin Angle was as well.

“I probably told you that the perfect Roomba is the Roomba that you never see, you never touch, you just come home everyday and it’s done the right thing,” Angle told us. “But customers don’t want that—they want to be able to control what the robot does. We started to hear this a couple years ago, and it took a while before it sunk in, but it made sense.”

How? Angle compares it to having a human come into your house to clean, but you weren’t allowed to tell them where or when to do their job. Maybe after a while, you’ll build up the amount of trust necessary for that to work, but in the short term, it would likely be frustrating. And people get frustrated with their Roombas for this reason. “The desire to have more control over what the robot does kept coming up, and for me, it required a pretty big shift in my view of what intelligence we were trying to build. Autonomy is not intelligence. We need to do something more.”

That something more, Angle says, is a partnership as opposed to autonomy. It’s an acknowledgement that not everyone has the same level of trust in robots as the people who build them. It’s an understanding that people want to have a feeling of control over their homes, that they have set up the way that they want, and that they’ve been cleaning the way that they want, and a robot shouldn’t just come in and do its own thing. 

This change in direction also represents a substantial shift in resources for iRobot, and the company has pivoted two-thirds of its engineering organization to focus on software-based collaborative intelligence rather than hardware.

“Until the robot proves that it knows enough about your home and about the way that you want your home cleaned,” Angle says, “you can’t move forward.” He adds that this is one of those things that seem obvious in retrospect, but even if they’d wanted to address the issue before, they didn’t have the technology to solve the problem. Now they do. “This whole journey has been earning the right to take this next step, because a robot can’t be responsive if it’s incompetent,” Angle says. “But thinking that autonomy was the destination was where I was just completely wrong.”

The previous iteration of the iRobot app (and Roombas themselves) are built around one big fat CLEAN button. The new approach instead tries to figure out in much more detail where the robot should clean, and when, using a mixture of autonomous technology and interaction with the user.

Where to Clean

Knowing where to clean depends on your Roomba having a detailed and accurate map of its environment. For several generations now, Roombas have been using visual mapping and localization (VSLAM) to build persistent maps of your home. These maps have been used to tell the Roomba to clean in specific rooms, but that’s about it. With the new update, Roombas with cameras will be able to recognize some objects and features in your home, including chairs, tables, couches, and even countertops. The robots will use these features to identify where messes tend to happen so that they can focus on those areas—like around the dining room table or along the front of the couch. 

We should take a minute here to clarify how the Roomba is using its camera. The original (primary?) purpose of the camera was for VSLAM, where the robot would take photos of your home, downsample them into QR-code-like patterns of light and dark, and then use those (with the assistance of other sensors) to navigate. Now the camera is also being used to take pictures of other stuff around your house to make that map more useful.

iRobot BraavaJet The robots will now try to fit into the kinds of cleaning routines that many people already have established. For example, the app may suggest an “after dinner” routine that cleans just around the kitchen and dining room table. Photo: iRobot

This is done through machine learning using a library of images of common household objects from a floor perspective that iRobot had to develop from scratch. Angle clarified for us that this is all done via a neural net that runs on the robot, and that “no recognizable images are ever stored on the robot or kept, and no images ever leave the robot.” Worst case, if all the data iRobot has about your home gets somehow stolen, the hacker would only know that (for example) your dining room has a table in it and the approximate size and location of that table, because the map iRobot has of your place only stores symbolic representations rather than images.

Another useful new feature is intended to help manage the “evil Roomba places” (as Angle puts it) that every home has that cause Roombas to get stuck. If the place is evil enough that Roomba has to call you for help because it gave up completely, Roomba will now remember, and suggest that either you make some changes or that it stops cleaning there, which seems reasonable.

When to Clean

It turns out that the primary cause of mission failure for Roombas is not that they get stuck or that they run out of battery—it’s user cancellation, usually because the robot is getting in the way or being noisy when you don’t want it to be. “If you kill a Roomba’s job because it annoys you,” points out Angle, “how is that robot being a good partner? I think it’s an epic fail.” Of course, it’s not the robot’s fault, because Roombas only clean when we tell them to, which Angle says is part of the problem. “People actually aren’t very good at making their own schedules—they tend to oversimplify, and not think through what their schedules are actually about, which leads to lots of [figurative] Roomba death.”

To help you figure out when the robot should actually be cleaning, the new app will look for patterns in when you ask the robot to clean, and then recommend a schedule based on those patterns. That might mean the robot cleans different areas at different times every day of the week. The app will also make scheduling recommendations that are event-based as well, integrated with other smart home devices. Would you prefer the Roomba to clean every time you leave the house? The app can integrate with your security system (or garage door, or any number of other things) and take care of that for you.

More generally, Roomba will now try to fit into the kinds of cleaning routines that many people already have established. For example, the app may suggest an “after dinner” routine that cleans just around the kitchen and dining room table. The app will also, to some extent, pay attention to the environment and season. It might suggest increasing your vacuuming frequency if pollen counts are especially high, or if it’s pet shedding season and you have a dog. Unfortunately, Roomba isn’t (yet?) capable of recognizing dogs on its own, so the app has to cheat a little bit by asking you some basic questions. 

A Smarter App

iRobot app The previous iteration of the iRobot app (and Roombas themselves) are built around one big fat CLEAN button. The new approach instead tries to figure out in much more detail where the robot should clean, and when, using a mixture of autonomous technology and interaction with the user. Image: iRobot

The app update, which should be available starting today, is free. The scheduling and recommendations will work on every Roomba model, although for object recognition and anything related to mapping, you’ll need one of the more recent and fancier models with a camera. Future app updates will happen on a more aggressive schedule. Major app releases should happen every six months, with incremental updates happening even more frequently than that. 

Angle also told us that overall, this change in direction also represents a substantial shift in resources for iRobot, and the company has pivoted two-thirds of its engineering organization to focus on software-based collaborative intelligence rather than hardware. “It’s not like we’re done doing hardware,” Angle assured us. “But we do think about hardware differently. We view our robots as platforms that have longer life cycles, and each platform will be able to support multiple generations of software. We’ve kind of decoupled robot intelligence from hardware, and that’s a change.”

Angle believes that working toward more intelligent collaboration between humans and robots is “the brave new frontier of artificial intelligence. I expect it to be the frontier for a reasonable amount of time to come,” he adds. “We have a lot of work to do to create the type of easy-to-use experience that consumer robots need.”

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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