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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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

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11 min read
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

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

"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.

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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