At the end of my last column, I promised Id tell you why iRobot—a company co-founded by two MIT grads and an MIT professor—gave its remote-controlled robot human characteristics. One premise of the column was that the Internet does not change human behavior, and I thought about that as I watched iRobots co-founders show off their latest creation last month at Demo 2001.
The question of human behavior in a robot is an interesting one, because the iRobot namesake looks so unhuman. Unlike iRobots cute and amazingly lifelike My Real Baby—an artificially intelligent infant created with Hasbro that went on the market last Christmas season—the iRobot is a long-necked, ungainly looking creature that appears to have escaped from the set of “Star Wars.”
It is controlled remotely through a Web browser and shows its driver video of what it sees and audio of what it hears as it navigates through a room. It negotiates stairs unassisted with a front flipper and wheels, and can extend its neck to the height of a standard-sized table so it can see over the top or engage a seated person at his or her own level. IRobot CTO Rodney Brooks, who directs MITs Artificial Intelligence Lab, got the inspiration for iRobot by studying insects. Brooks noticed that insects can manage basic behaviors—eating, mating and finding their way around their environments—despite having very small brains.
President Helen Greiner suggests that working parents use iRobot to check on their teenagers after school, and that companies use it to find employees in remote offices who would then have “nowhere to run and hide.”
IRobot currently is selling a development version of its creature to businesses—teleconferencing and telemedicine are two applications—and plans a consumer version in the near future. The company argues that businesses could save travel expenses by deploying iRobots to check on production, and that families could save worry about pets or elderly relatives left alone.
Such possible invasions of privacy may not be what they seem.
CEO Colin Angle argues that because iRobot must be physically and obviously present in the same room with the objects of its attention, it cannot behave as a spy. People give iRobot permission to carry out its duties by interacting with it, Angle says, something they do not do with a hidden camera. So families and businesses presumably would develop rules of behavior for interacting with iRobot, which they might come to consider a quasi-family member or employee.
A final twist on this tale lies in the reason for iRobots startlingly functional appearance. IRobot is not cute because the early adopters of this product are men, and men dont like cute—at least not in robots.