When I spoke to Colin Angle of iRobot earlier this summer, he said that iRobot OS — the latest software operating system for its robot vacuums and mops — would give its household bots a deeper understanding of your home and your habits. This takes on a whole new meaning with the news that Amazon has bought iRobot for $1.7 billion.
From a smart home perspective, it seems clear that Amazon wants iRobot for the maps it generates to give it an in-depth understanding of our homes. The vacuum company has detailed knowledge of our floor plans and, crucially, how they change. It knows where your kitchen is, what your kids’ rooms are, where your couch is (and how new it is), and if you’ve recently turned the guest bedroom into a kid’s room.
This kind of data is digital gold for a company whose primary goal is to sell you more stuff. While I’m interested in seeing how Amazon can use iRobot’s technology to advance its smart home ambitions, many are right about the privacy implications. People want home automation to work better, but they don’t want to give up the intimate details of their lives for more convenience.
This is a mystery in the tech world, but in our home it’s much more personal. Amazon’s history of sharing data with law enforcement through subsidiary Ring, combined with its “always listening (before the wake word)” Echo smart speakers and now its intimate knowledge of your floor plan, give it a pretty complete picture of your day-to-day life.
Each of iRobot’s connected Roomba vacuums and mops drives through homes several times a week, mapping and reallocating the spaces. On its latest model, the j7, iRobot has added a front-facing, AI-powered camera that, according to Angle, has detected more than 43 million objects in people’s homes. Other models have a low-resolution camera that points to the ceiling for navigation.
All this makes it likely that this purchase isn’t about robotics; if that was what Amazon wanted, it would have bought iRobot years ago. Instead, it probably picked up the company (for a relative bargain – iRobot just reported a 30 percent drop in sales in the face of increasing competition) to get a detailed look at our homes. Why? Because knowing your floor plan provides context. And in the smart home in which Amazon plays a major role, context is king.
“We really believe in ambient intelligence – an environment where your devices are interwoven by AI so that they can provide much more than any device could do on its own,” Marja Koopmans, director of Alexa smart home, told me last month in an interview. . Ambient intelligence requires multiple data points to work. With detailed maps of our homes and the ability to instantly communicate with more smart home devices once Matter arrives, Amazon’s vision of ambient intelligence in the smart home suddenly becomes a lot more feasible.
Astro — Amazon’s “sweet” home bot — was probably an attempt to get that data. The robot has good card options, powered by sensors and cameras that let it know everything from where the fridge is to what room you’re currently in. Obviously, Amazon already had the ability to do what iRobot does. But for a thousand bucks and with limited features (it can’t vacuum your house) and no general release date, Astro isn’t getting that information any time soon for Amazon.
Ring’s Always Home Cam has similar mapping capabilities, allowing the flying camera to safely navigate your home. That product has a wider reach than Astro, as it only costs $250 and has a very clear focus on security. But it is still not available to buy.
So what iRobot brings to Amazon is context at scale. As Angle told me in May, “The barrier to the next level of AI in robotics is not better AI. It’s context,” says Angle. “We’ve understood the saying ‘go to the kitchen and get me a beer for a decade. “But if I don’t know where the kitchen is, and I don’t know where the fridge is, and I don’t know what a beer looks like, it really doesn’t matter if I understand your words.” iRobot OS provides some of that context, and because it’s cloud-based, it can easily share the information with other devices (Currently, users can opt out of Roomba’s Smart Maps feature, which stores and shares map data between iRobot devices.)
With context, the smart home gets smarter; devices can work and work together better without the homeowner having to program or ask for them. Angle used the example of a connected air purifier (iRobot, so now Amazon, owns) Aeris air purifiers). The purifier could automatically know which room it was in using the iRobot OS cloud. “It would [know] ‘I am in the kitchen. It’s okay to make more noise. And there are many sources of pollutants here.’ Compared to his role in a bedroom, that would be different,” says Angle.
Amazon now owns four smart home brands (in addition to its Alexa platform, anchored by its Echo smart speakers and smart displays): home security company Ring, budget camera company Blink, and mesh Wi-Fi pioneers Eero. Add iRobot and Amazon has many of the elements needed to create an almost conscious smart home, one that can anticipate what you want it to do and do it without you asking. This is something Amazon has already started with its Hunches feature.
But consumer confidence is a major roadblock. Amazon will have to do a lot more to prove it’s worth this kind of unfettered access to your home. Today, for many people, more convenience is not worth the trade-off.
Photography by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge