A Chat With Roomba Man

You don't want a big honkin' machine rumbling through your home

The surprise success of iRobot's Roomba vacuum cleaner marked the arrival of mobile robotic appliances. It also added a consumer hit to iRobot's line of high-tech military and one-off models. Yet the company's 36-year-old CEO and co-founder, Colin Angle, is cautious about the future of more advanced humanoid robots. Here are edited excerpts of his chat with BusinessWeek Industries Editor Adam Aston:

When can we expect to see multipurpose domestic robots, doing a variety of tasks in the home?

Rosie the Robot of The Jetsons won't be there for us anytime soon. If Moore's Law [for semiconductor evolution] keeps going, though, we'll get there. But it will be closer to 20 years, not a decade.

Today's household robots may be pets or appliances, like the Roomba. How will they look in the future?

The robots want to stay as small as they can be. That way, from a liability standpoint, they do less damage, pose less risk of injury, consume less energy, move most easily, and so on. You don't want a big honkin' machine rumbling through your home.

What kind of infrastructure needs to come into being for robots to work in the home? Wireless networking? Power stations?

The communications and power are all pretty basic. We have the technology now to do what we need. The bigger challenge [for cleaning 'bots] is what to do with the waste: How do you get rid of the dust or the dirty water? Where will clean water for mopping come from? Even for humans, home maintenance has a lot to do with supplying and applying cleaning agents and then removing the resulting waste. For a robot, this suggests homes will need ports where the 'bots can return to empty their waste, recharge, and refill supplies.

Will robots interact among themselves?

Absolutely. Relatively special-purpose machines will need to communicate with one another. One robot will push a chair so another can come clean an area. A vacuum cleaner comes, then it signals the mopping robot to come behind it. Or the sentry robot says, "There's a spill," and summons the cleanup robot.

The kitchen and the playroom seem to be driving household-robot developments. What about elder care?

Robotics will play a big role in addressing that need. [Otherwise] what will we do with people who don't want to go into nursing homes? Over the next 10 years, you'll see attempts to provide automated live-in care services. If a robot can enable a person to live alone even a year or two, there will be a big demand.

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