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Quantfury Daily Gazette

🖥️Technology

Aspiring for the future

by
Miguel F Contributor

I still remember the moment I discovered robot vacuum cleaners while reading technology news on a website in the early 2000s. Suddenly a short video ad showed something similar to a giant hockey puck that had the ability to move autonomously, and through a suction system and brushes located underneath it, it sucked up the dust and dirt it found on its way. It was amusing to see how it worked, going back and forth, bumping into objects in the room and changing course as it did so. It reminded me of toy cars that were very popular when I was a kid; perhaps that was the trigger that made me want to get one manufactured by the not-so-well-known company iRobot Corp (NASDAQ: IRBT).

The company was founded in 1990 by three student engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and although they had a clear passion for robotics and a desire to create functional robots to assist humans, they did not know exactly which niche of the industry they would apply this knowledge to. 

For years they developed various technologies focused on exploration, with one of their first robots responsible for exploring the Pyramid of Giza in a documentary for National Geographic. It also entered the business of manufacturing robots for military use for the search and deactivation of explosives and exploration in disaster areas. The iRobot 110 model participated in the search for survivors after the Twin Towers attack in 2001, while the iRobot 510 model took part in the U.S. Army’s tactical operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite the technological breakthroughs, the company was commercially stagnant. The manufacture of scout and military robots was too expensive, and demand was not sufficient, so it was forced to diversify its portfolio of services. It was not until 1992 that physicist Joe Jones joined the company and presented a robot vacuum cleaner prototype he had worked on during his time at the Artificial Intelligence department at MIT, but with little success in attracting investors.

His new job at iRobot gave him the opportunity to experiment, but it was after several years, when the company achieved some financial stability, that Jones began working on a new prototype that took him close to five years to plan and execute. The first “Roomba” model was launched in 2002, and it sold 1 million units in just two years. As of today, there are an estimated 20 million Roombas distributed worldwide.

Early reviews were not generous. Many users considered the vacuum cleaners to be very noisy and slow and that they did not cover the entire surface effectively, which particularly interfered with my idea of getting one of them. There were several improvements to be made in terms of functionality, but I still enjoyed the idea of having an autonomous robot cleaning my home while I was at work. I also couldn’t hide the desire to show off such a cool gadget to my family and friends. 

Nowadays, there are several brands with similar and cheaper products. In fact, iRobot Corp (NASDAQ: IRBT) has legal disputes with some of them, such as Stanley Black & Decker Inc (NYSE: SWK), for considering that it has violated their design patents. In any case, Roomba holds 70% of the robot vacuum cleaner market. The use of the navigation system formerly used by robot explorer models, together with artificial intelligence and other features such as an onboard camera that can recognize objects in its path, make Roomba the favourite of consumers.

So much so that Amazon recently offered a multi-billion dollar deal to buy iRobot Corp (NASDAQ: IRBT) because of the potential behind owning the interior mappings of millions of homes and knowing what furniture, appliances and objects, in general, are being consumed by the occupants. News of this merger was not well received by the general public, which is why the Federal Communications Commission challenged the acquisition as monopolistic.

Joe Jones has now left iRobot Corp (NASDAQ: IRBT) and is working on his new project: Franklin Robotics, which seeks to solve agricultural problems through the application of automatons. Contrary to what most technologists predict, Jones says that in the future, we will not socialize with robots, as his years of experience show him that humans prefer to use them for monotonous jobs while remaining “invisible.” 

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