Toshiba Smarbo Vacuum Has Twice the Smarts, but Does It Matter?

While smarter and more efficient robots are never a bad thing, do we really need a smarter vacuum?

2 min read
Toshiba Smarbo Vacuum Has Twice the Smarts, but Does It Matter?

This is a new vacuuming robot from Toshiba, called the Smarbo. Few of the specs will surprise you: it's got 38 sensors, obstacle detection, edge detection, and a mapping camera (kinda like LG's RoboKing) that lets it recognize where it's been and clean rooms in an efficient, single pass pattern. What caught our eye was the "double brain function," which (if Google Translate is to be relied upon, never a good idea) seems to suggest that this vacuum is smarter than normal.

But do we really care?

Progress is always good, and a faster and more efficient robot is usually a better robot. But when we're talking about an autonomous vacuum, there's a question as to whether or not a marginal improvement in efficiency derived from a more computationally intensive algorithm will really make a difference in your life. As I see it, a robot vacuum can operate in one of two ways: pseudo-randomly, like a Roomba, or using a mapping pattern, like a Neato. iRobot's method involves multiple cleaning passes to clean better (maybe) at the expense of efficiency, while Neato's method covers most areas of your floor approximately once. Obviously, the Neato is much faster, so if speed is what you want, go with a vacuum that makes a map.

But there's a limit to the amount of cleverness you can use to improve that "approximately once" coverage method. Or perhaps I should say, you can throw as much CPU cleverness as you want at the problem, but returns diminish rapidly unless the speed or single-pass coverage area of your robot also increases. Again, I'm not trying to harsh on progress, but on some level a "smarter" robot vacuum is sort of like a camera with 12 megapixels instead of 10: looks good on paper, but will you ever really notice and are you willing to pay a premium for it? Perhaps not.

What I do like is Toshiba's "careful" cleaning method, which is sort of like a compromise between efficiency and multiple passes. If you set the Smarbo to clean carefully, it'll do a single pass while mapping the room, and then go back and do a second, orthogonal pass, like so (bottom left):

Pretty cool. Maybe something Neato could implement in their next tasty little software upgrade? Eh? Yeah? Anyway, unless you live somewhere besides the U.S., much of this rant discussion was to some extent pointless, since the Smarbo is not a vacuum that you'll ever be able to purchase, likely because some of its major components look like they were more or less lifted straight from the Roomba. If you're in Japan, though, you can pick up the Smarbo for about $1,175 starting October 1.

[ Toshiba ] via [ TechCrunch ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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