For those who haven’t seen them in action, Roomba vacuums are disc-shaped robots that wander around the home, picking up dirt and scaring cats. It is the most successful product from iRobot, a company contracted for its anti-personnel mine deactivation robots for the Pentagon or for its space exploration equipment for NASA. Two weeks ago, Amazon announced an agreement to acquire iRobot, the company that makes them, for $1.7 billion. What does the tech giant want with this acquisition?
These words from Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, in an interview with EL PAÍS in 2018 hold the key. “If I tell Alexa, ‘Go into the kitchen and get me a beer,’ Alexa understands, but she doesn’t know what a kitchen is. Alexa needs to know what a kitchen is, what a bedroom is. This organization of spatial information is what is missing to make homes smart.”
The Roomba sucks dust, but also data. They have, among other things, optical, infrared and pressure sensors that allow them to avoid obstacles and clean the selected rooms. The latest model, the j7, has a front camera that takes photos of whatever gets in its way and has already cataloged more than 43 million objects using artificial intelligence algorithms. They don’t improvise their movements: they move through detailed maps that they draw on the house and that they update with every expedition they undertake.
This information is worth its weight in gold. Facebook might know what you’re voting for and Google might know you better than your girlfriend, but those are always conclusions from digital activity. Until now, the big technology companies have not had access to the purely physical environment of their customers’ private lives. Mapping houses and seeing what’s inside opens a new horizon of possibilities. It brings the spatial context that Angle was referring to. And much more.
Roomba can estimate your income level (it knows the size of your house and what neighborhood it’s in), how many children you have and how old they are (due to the type of obstacles you encounter), how much time you spend at home whether you telecommute or not, whether you watch TV, where you have the sofa and whether you changed it recently, whether you like to cook, whether you have pets, whether you are tidy or not and even your sleeping habits. All based on the topography of the house and the objects it encounters, not more or less sophisticated assumptions based on your preferences or search history. This information is a goldmine for a company, Amazon, which, among other things, is dedicated to selling all kinds of products.
Promotional image of Astro, the Amazon robot that moves around the house and can see and hear you.
The Amazon acquisition makes even more sense when it overlaps with other Amazon products. Roomba provides detailed maps of the home. Echo voice assistants, where Alexa lives, are your mic in the house (always listening, waiting to recognize wake words). Doorbell systems keep track of who enters and leaves the house; Blink security cameras are your eyes on the inside. The Astro robots, a sort of Alexa with wheels, camera, and screen, haven’t quite made it to become an everyday product like Roomba, but if they do, they’ll bring a plus of the company’s omniscience to homes.
Amazon has a holistic view of what’s going on at home, the core of intimacy in capitalist society. Can the information Roomba collects be crossed with what Amazon already had about our tastes? The acquisition isn’t complete yet, and it’s too early to talk about data integration. That’s according to sources at Jeff Bezos-founded EL PAÍS, who emphasize that “protecting customer data has always been a priority.” When Facebook bought WhatsApp, Mark Zuckerberg said he would never integrate the social network’s data with that of the messaging service. It was only two years before his promise was broken.
Is there reason to worry about the privacy implications of Roomba invading the pool? In 2017 there was a rumor that iRobot was planning to sell the house plans to companies like Amazon, Apple or Google. The company denied. Ring video door entry systems worked with several US law enforcement agencies despite being already owned by Amazon, multiple journalistic investigations have shown, although company spokesmen assure the practice is over forever.
We will see. The operation still has to pass the filter of the US supervisory authority FTC. The panel is chaired by Lina Khan, an academic who argues at the big tech companies. The lawyer made a name for herself in academia with an article arguing how to effectively apply old antitrust law to the elusive big tech – her case study being Amazon.
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