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Roomba Inventor Joe Jones: Why I Think Home Robots Will Become Invisible

Joe Jones, the inventor of the Roomba, argues that home robots will follow computers into the shadows

2 min read
Robots are going to become invisible in our homes
In this guest post, Joe Jones, the inventor of the Roomba, argues that home robots will follow computers into the shadows.
Photo-illustration: IEEE Spectrum; Roomba image: iRobot

How many computers do you own?

If you picked a number close to three (say, laptop, tablet, and smartphone) you're way off. The answer is probably dozens. There are computers in your car, in your appliances, in your thermostat, and maybe even in your light bulbs. Every year the number goes up.

Today, visible computers are just the slimmest tip of the iceberg. Most computers are hidden away, quietly performing their jobs without you even being aware of the work they do for you. That's as it should be. You have no interest in the computers themselves, you just want certain tasks done.

Cute, social robots currently get a lot of press, but are these engaging devices early emissaries of our robotic future? Are we entering an era where no one would dream of living without a cheerful electromechanical companion? In my view, companion robots offer novelty over utility, but once the novelty wears off, it's only utility that people will pay for.

Rather than being front and center, home robots, I believe, will follow computers into the shadows. Why? Because people don't want robots.

Rather than being front and center, home robots, I believe, will follow computers into the shadows. Why? Because people don't want robots. (I say this despite 30-plus years as a practicing roboticist.) Consumers want a spotless floor; not a machine buzzing around underfoot. Every morning, you want to find your dresser filled with clean clothes; you have no need to socialize with a laundry-bot no matter how exuberant it may be. People want the things a robot can do for them; the robot itself may just get in the way.

Acknowledging that consumers don't love robots the way we do might help roboticists build better products. The robot, I think, should not be an end in itself but instead should be the simplest, most cost effective way to deliver what our customers truly want. Furthermore, if a proposed robot is not the simplest, most cost effective solution to a problem consumers want solved, then we shouldn't build that robot.

In the fairytale of the shoemaker and the elves, the shoemaker awakens each morning to find that his work is done. Discovering how the work was accomplished requires effort on the part of the shoemaker. This, I think, is good inspiration for robot developers.

Home robotics hasn't achieved that happy ideal yet. We can program Roomba to emerge and work when no one is home, but it's still necessary to empty the dirt compartment and clean the brushes. My newest robot, Tertill, which is available on Kickstarter, is another step in the direction of invisibility—delivering a weed-free garden with almost no attention from the gardener.

I look forward to the day when the logistics of home life will simply run smoothly and no one need trouble themselves with the details. Unless they want to.

The views expressed in this guest post are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE. This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

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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
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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
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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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