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Interview: Helen Greiner, Chairman and Cofounder of iRobot, Corp.


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We recently got a chance to chat with Helen Griener, Cofounder and Chairman of iRobot (best known for the Roomba Robot Vacuum). With the launch of new Roomba Discovery, the PackBots as well as I, Robot the movie, we had a few questions she was gracious enough to answer for us.

Helen was named the Ernst and Young New England Entrepreneur of the Year for 2003 (with iRobot co-founder Colin Angle). She has also been honored as a Technology Review Magazine "Innovator for the Next Century," invited to the World Economic Forums as a Global Leader of Tomorrow, and has been awarded the prestigious DEMO God Award at the DEMO Conference. Her 15 years of experience in robotic technology includes work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Computer Science, both from MIT.

Needless to say, we have a slight crush.

First up??? name, rank, serial number?
Helen Greiner
Chairman and Cofounder
iRobot Corporation

Could you tell us how iRobot Corporation was founded?
Colin, Rod and I founded iRobot out of MIT after Colin and I graduated (in 1990). The vision has always been to make robots that touch people's lives everyday and create a robotics industry. The plan has evolved over time by creating business model around the state of technology, the state of capitalization, and the state of manufacturing capability that existed. We have built robots that go deep into the bore of oil wells, toys that were marketed by Hasbro, museum displays, a prototype planetary explorer, a legged robot for underwater mines, a robotic fish, a swarm of 100 robots, and a robot that explored shafts in the great pyramid.

What's your daily schedule like at iRobot now?
Crazy, but always interesting.

What are some interesting things about the Roomba in general, and what are the new features folks should be excited about with the new Discovery Roomba?
The most interesting thing about is its ability to get around in any home on its own and clean well. This was thought to be impossible at such a low cost. So the combination of very inexpensive sensors made effective by very clever design, the multithreaded operating system running on very a very small microprocessor, and the really low power sweeper/vac. Also, The Discovery has a 16-bit microprocessor and flash memory.

The Discoveries make a lot of improvement in the cleaning, lifetime, quick charge, and dirt storage, but the most compelling are the new robotic features. These guys actually know when they are picking up dirt and change the cleaning pattern to pick it up more efficiently. The coolest though is the home base station. The robot actually knows it is running low on juice and starts looking for its charger. When it sees the infrared lobes that the base station transmits, it gets lined up, then like under control of a tractor beam it heads into the dock and starts a recharging cycle. The first model that has this cost 249.99 but the other new model are compatible with the recharger accessory, which can be bought separately.


PackBot is different division of iRobot, can you tell us about what these robots are intended for?
Government and Industrial Robotics and Consumer Robotics are our division names. iRobot's PackBot is the new standard in unmanned reconnaissance and bomb disposal. It is a lightweight, rugged robot that can be carried and deployed by a single soldier. PackBot offers unprecedented mobility and durability???it can be thrown into a building through a window, climb stairs, drop 20 feet and still function properly. The robot was originally developed under the Tactical Mobile Robotics program, which was sponsored by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Designed as a versatile payload carrier, iRobot has added reconnaissance payloads with pan/tilt head and night vision, Chem/gas/rad payloads, and a bomb disposal (EOD) payloads.
The PackBot EOD has been used on thousands of bomb disposal missions and we are very proud of its life saving function. The one pictured was sent back to us from Iraq for analysis after a bomb detonated. In most missions, the PackBot EOD returns safely, but in the case where it is blown up, better a robot than a soldier. A geek aside: the PackBot is running a Linux OS with
iRobot's Aware robot control software.
Pictured: PackBot #129. Killed In Action. April 8, 2004 Iraq. Click here for a larger view.

What was the relationship between iRobot and I, Robot the movie starring Will Smith?
The name iRobot comes from a common source, the Asimov I, Robot short stories. We also like it because it can be "intelligent" robot or "I" Robot (i.e. the personal combined with the technology).

We have done some joint promotions with the 20th Century Fox folks and I have been asked to talk about the state of the art in robotics at movie screenings. Colin Rod and I were all interviewed for the DVD version.

What did you think of the movie? Would you say it's accurate in terms of where robotics is heading?
I loved the movie. It kept true to the Asimovian principles and many scenes described in the book, but did not just follow any one story (which would have not made a summer block buster). The robot was a compelling character. (see final question)

Besides iRobot Corporation, what robotic projects or robot firms have you been impressed with?
Well, Rod's work at MIT on humanoids is very compelling; I just got the tour last week. And the demo humanoid, cardea, etc. Manuela at CMU has made great progress using robot soccer as a challenge (with Aibos) on robot cooperation, machine vision, and strategy. Acroname just came out with a line of fairly inexpensive robots for hobbyists.

For anyone interested in robotics, what resources or conferences are coming up that you would suggest?

For the first time ever the US robotic community (led by a media firm called Robotic Trends) is putting on a show to rival the Japanese robot shows like Robodex.

RoboNexus takes the best qualities of academic and business development events, consumer electronics and toy mega events, user group meetings and robotic competitions, and combines them into a single event. The event will be marketed to millions of business professionals, educators, developers and consumers throughout the world, and is expected to draw over 15,000 attendees, making RoboNexus the largest robotics event held in North America. The conference and exposition will be held at the Santa Clara Convention Center, Santa Clara, CA on October 21-23, 2004.

Last up??? The movie I, Robot takes place in 2035. What types of home robotics, and robotics in general do you think we'll see in 30 years?
Neither Sonny nor the ne5 in general will exist in 2035. Two many breakthroughs would have to happen in technology and be commercialized in too short a timeframe. All need to exist to make a system. Power, actuators, sensors, perception algorithms are just not close today. Perhaps even more importantly, at the cost they would have to be, hiring a human would be more cost effective, thus without a business motivation we will continue to see humanoid demos, not real servants.

That said, I think they will exist someday???maybe 100 years.

Instead, in 30 years chores around the house will be a thing of the past. The robots will have evolved from automatic appliances to home automations systems. iRobot (and others) will be selling clean floor, clear windows, organized closets, mowed lawns, sparkling toilets, and dust-free surfaces that the consumer never has to think about. The robots just come out and do the job when it needs to be done.

There will be a robot in every squad car and it would be unthinkable to send an officer into an unknown situation. Robots will help the massive problems cause by the world aging demographic. Predictions currently are dire about the availability of caregivers for the folks who will need them. Enter the robots, that allow doctor to go on house calls through telepresence, that bring your grandmother water in order to hydrate, assure medication compliance, and even find the spectacles that Grandpa has lost for the 1000th time.

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