The iRobot Q&A: Colin Angle on the Next Robotics Inflection Point

8/28/12Follow @gthuang

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forum for academic innovation. We look at the algorithms, and what’s being done at Willow, and have taken elements that we think are valuable and pull them into our arena and use them.

X: Looking back on all your years at iRobot, what’s the biggest surprise?

CA: That it would take so long. This is a hard industry. It takes a lot longer to travel from idea to product than I would have ever guessed. Another is that the difference between a demonstration and a product is much larger in the robot space. The difference between demo and product in the software space can be weeks—or it’s the same, you just have to deal with it crashing.

When we started the business, we thought robots were cool. We thought that there was a neat business in building robotic products. I don’t think we felt the importance of the mission. We’re saving lives in Iraq and Afghanistan; sending the robots to Fukushima reactor to clean up a global disaster; finding the underwater pools of oil in the Gulf of Mexico that helped drive a more holistic cleanup of that ecological disaster. The impact is breathtaking. “Did you really think you were going to do that?” No, we wanted to build cool stuff. Predicting the impact on the future is quite hard, but we have a mission to continue to drive and build the industry. I will tell you, rarely is it a boring day.

X: So…what’s the coolest robot you have at home?

CA: The coolest would be Roomba. But I have this vision that these [other robots] are going to be in my home, and I’m going to do wonderfully useless things with these robots. My goal is having robots that can traverse my home, where maybe I’ll get one of Rod [Brooks]’s Rethink torsos to be a bartender, I’ll have Avas going around taking drink orders and then going back and using facial recognition to go find you and bring you your drinks. My wife will want the robot, in its circuit of the home, to make sure that the toilet seat is down.

I’m going to think of the most useless things that can be conceived of and then spend some evenings programming these cool ideas and using the tools. I think that to some degree this offers me an opportunity to get back and get my hands a little dirty. It starts from having this actual product-quality reliable navigation enabling a thousand interesting applications, from super high value—diagnose stroke from across the world—to something completely “just fun.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • hateroomba

    iRobot’s equipment is awful. The batteries run out in no time. A not-very-old roomba can only run for 10 minutes or so.

  • A Boston Woman in Robotics

    “In the end it’s refreshing to see that Angle, a tech celebrity and an iconic figure in Boston’s innovation scene, hasn’t lost his boyish love of robots. (None of these guys ever do.)” … or girls, and their girlish love of robots. Let’s not forget that iRobot’s cofounder was a woman who is now off building more robots.