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Sci-Tech

My friend, the robot

Robots don't need arms, legs and a witty vocabulary to have a profound impact on human life, according to iRobot CEO Colin Angle.

Future robots might not look like C-3PO of "Star Wars" fame or Rosie on "The Jetsons," but they are becoming more personal than even their creators might have realized.

iRobot Chief Executive Officer Colin Angle often fields questions about the Roomba robot vacuum, which is probably one of the more widely used consumer robots, with over 2 million units sold. But Angle is just as proud of his company's PackBots, which U.S. soldiers are using in Iraq to detonate roadside improvised explosive devices.

The PackBots have almost become members of military units, Angle said, recalling an incident when a U.S. soldier begged iRobot to repair his unit's robot, which they had dubbed Scooby Doo. "Please fix Scooby Doo because he saved my life," was the soldier's plea, Angle told the Future in Review conference last week in Coronado, Calif.

For many reasons, people bond with robots in a way they don't bond with their lawn mowers, televisions or regular vacuum cleaners. At some point, this could help solve the looming health care problem caused by an enormous generation of aging people. Not only could robots make sure they take their medicine and watch for early warning signs of distress, but they could also provide a companion for lonely people and extend their independence.

While in Coronado, Angle sat down with CNET News.com to talk about the future of robotics, from home cleaning to health care.

Q: I wanted to ask you a little bit more about this notion of robots and companionship. How much of that is people projecting things onto robots, and how much of that is robot designers building in cues that will allow people to do that?
Angle: With the iRobot Roomba, we explicitly tried not to make it cute. The idea was, this is a serious appliance, we want people to take it seriously, and yet the personification happens anyway. There is the moment during the operation of the robot when it becomes a member of the household. You take it home, you unpack it, and you turn it on, and you start to be happy with it, and then there's this moment when maybe you're watching TV or cooking dinner, and you notice it, you know, working away in the corner and...there is a cord or something. You feel some type of "Come on, robot, you can do it!" and then all of a sudden it's not just a tool.

Would they admit to themselves they're buying (a robot) because they want a friend? I actually have heard people say "yes"

What's different about it compared to a vacuum cleaner?
Angle: To some extent it's alive, meaning that you've told her what to do, you hit the clean button, and now it is on its own. It's struggling to get everywhere in the room. You can see it working around the chairs very diligently. As I describe what it's doing I'm using words that are evocative of human intent.

It's nearly impossible not to have these emotions as you observe Roomba. It's not an intimidating robot. It's not something that's going to evoke negative or hostile emotions. You want it to succeed, you're cheering for it, and it is a very emotional sort of experience.

You talked a little bit about the robot as companions, not really just as a helper or something to do the chore for you, but as someone or something to be there for you just as a companion. How realistic is this in the future?
Angle: It has already happened, and it doesn't take that much. I don't have to create an anatomically correct, fantastically wonderful humanoid in order to have it count as a robot pet or robot companion. You know, the Furby thing sold 20 million-plus units.

But how does that interact with you? You defined a robot (during the conference) as something that perceives its environment, and then acts based on the judgments it makes about the environment.
Angle: With Furby, you could talk to it, you could pet it, you could learn its language and so forth. Probably two months after they got it, it was in the trash, but it was only $39. But there is very compelling evidence that a robot companion or robot pet meets a need that we, as humans, have based on the way many of us live.

Do you think people would buy a robot that was created for that purpose, though? Do you think people buy them because they want a friend or they want a pet?
Angle: Do you mean, would they admit to themselves they're buying it because they want a friend? I actually have heard people say "yes," older people saying, "I wanted a Furby because they give me something to talk to." They are often careful not to suggest that this would be a replacement for human friends, but this is a nice thing, and the way they describe it is interesting. They convey a sense of loneliness that it would be kind of cool to have this guy around. Much like people would talk about teddy bears, or...other reassuring, comforting types of devices, but with more interactivity and more utility than perhaps teddy bears provide.

Where is the greatest future potential for robots?
Angle: Well, I think providing the independence that an aging person requires to remain living independently--meaning, I want to live in my home until I die, and I can't afford a live-in nurse, and even if I could afford a live-in nurse, there aren't any and I don't want to be driven to the doctor's every other day. My robot takes care of me. I'm able to live all my life, I can visit my friends, I could continue my existence even as my physical capabilities diminish.

Is this something you envision as a device that is medically taking care of you, like monitoring your health, or is it something that's doing all the things that you can no longer do because you are too feeble to do so on your own?
Angle: We already sell eldercare robots; they are called Roomba and Scooba.

When we look at the people who were the earliest adopters of Roomba, there were three groups. First, people who really like clean homes and wanted something to go vacuum every day and get under their couches and beds and just wanted a routine cleaning service. Second, pet owners, people with shedding pets where you either vacuumed every day or you lived with pet hair everywhere. And then the third were the elderly, people who have difficulty pushing their own vacuum.

We had a woman who was incredibly passionate in getting back to us because, she said, "This has changed my life because, prior to Roomba, I'd have a cleaning service come in and vacuum and clean once a week, and so that I would only feel good enough about my house once a week to invite anyone over. Now Roomba does it every day and I feel good about having people over more frequently."

That's pretty compelling, and that's one of the biggest challenges of an aging person--increased social isolation. And here Roomba is decreasing this person's social isolation. So, ultimately this concept of delivering more independence starts with making homes that take care of themselves, and then continues on with technology to look toward the person and provide them with virtual doctor visits.

How long before that vision becomes a reality?
Angle: Ultimately, you end up in a hospital. Ultimately, you need a level of care which requires physical intervention beyond the capacity of a robot.

Could Roomba alone be seen, for some subset of the population in question, extending their ability to live independently by a year or two maybe? If we have a complete set of robots that took care of your housework, and folded your clothes and did your laundry, what then? If we allowed routine nurse visits to happen virtually, to sort of eyeball the person and ensure compliance for taking their meds, which is the number one reason why people are admitted into assisted living facilities? Well, then you've already taken a big step forward if we can ensure that.

It's going to be a step-by-step process, but if you have spent time caring for an aging relative, you know it's painful, it's challenging. This is a cost-effective way of helping reduce the burden there.