More robots entering the home? And by the way, what IS a robot… ?


The Automatic Shower Cleaner by SC Johnson isn’t a robot by our standards, but it’s close and we like it nonetheless. It might fit the definition of a robot by the dictionary definition, you be the judge:

ro·bot (rÅ?’bÅ?t’) n.

1. A mechanical device that sometimes resembles a human and is capable of performing a variety of often complex human tasks on command or by being programmed in advance.
2. A machine or device that operates automatically or by remote control.
3. A person who works mechanically without original thought, especially one who responds automatically to the commands of others.

Here at TR we tend to define a robot as a machine which alters or determines it’s behavior based upon sensory input. For instance, if an automatic shower cleaner could sense when to spray the shower on it’s own or how much to spray the shower through sensors then it would be a robot undeniably.

A sensing machine doesn’t need to resemble a human or even do a human task to be a robot by our terms. The task can be simple or very complex. The important part is that it in some way makes decisions based upon input of some format. This is where we draw our line. It can be argued then that even your refrigerator or heating & air conditioning are robotic devices. These are machines that alter their behavior based upon sensory feedback. They are replacing tasks of human work such as tending to the fireplace or opening and closing windows to regulate the temperature in the home. Would you considers these to be robots? What about a washing machine for clothes or dishes? Those machines replace a repetative human task. Intelligent washing machines which have sensors inside analyses how the cleaning is going and alter their cycles accordingly. Wouldn’t this fit the definition of a robot?

However, if you asked anyone these days to name a home robot you aren’t going to get “my dishwasher” or “my refrigerator” as an answer. You can lay good money on the bet that you will hear instead the funny little word, Roomba.

Roomba My Room Bud

When people think of robots they tend to think of moving machines. Or more specifically, machines that move on their own without a human guiding them. The Roomba, being a mobile robotic vacuum cleaner fits most everyone’s idea of a robot. The robot can sense dirty spots on the floor, find it’s own way back to it’s charging dock, sense walls, furniture, and even drop offs like stair cases. This endearing robot has been so successful that it is now a household name. Some entrepreneurial kids have started a company selling animal covers for the Roomba. As for real family pet’s? Some pets seem to be taking the addition of the latest family member in stride while others are having issues over sharing their domain.

This robot has caused such a stir that even SNL has created a parody product called the Woomba inspired by the famous vacuum. (Warning: Somewhat adult material) EDIT: Apparently, this robot caused such a stir that it was removed from YouTube (o.g. URL

Jetsons robot rosie

It is interesting to note how simple the first break out home robot was. For decades we all had visions of fancy human like helpers and what did reality show up with? A humble vacuum a few inches tall the size of a dinner plate. It makes sense though doesn’t it? Technology in the marketplace rarely makes huge leaps so it’s logical that robots would show up being quite simple in the beginning. A machine that bounces around sucking up debris requires relatively low sensing capabilities and thus is a feasible robot to manufacture and sell in the marketplace. Anything requiring vision or voice recognition is still well into the future. Robots have to tackle non-complex routine chores first before moving on to harder tasks like fetching us a drink. Irobot delivered a solid smack to the back of the heads of everyone who was dreaming up fancy servant robots. This was one of those marketplace moments when a collective “Duh!” reverberated around the world as it became painfully obvious that a humble robotic vacuum was the first step.

No doubt thousands of companies around the globe are scrambling to try and discover what “the next Roomba” is. The next logical step would seem to be the Lawnmower robot, however those have actually been around for a long time and have never quite taken off. Must have something to do with people’s nervousness about unsupervised whirling metal blades.

What is your definition of a robot? What do you think the “next Roomba” will be? Leave your opinion in our comments section or the forums.

2 Responses to “More robots entering the home? And by the way, what IS a robot… ?”

  1. Bob Mottram says:

    I’ve owned a Roomba ever since they first appeared a few years ago, and one thing which really surprised me was how simple its technology is. A robot like this could have been produced at any time within the last 20 years, and yet it only appeared on the market relatively recently.

    I don’t believe that inventors 20 years ago weren’t smart enough to envisage something like a Roomba, so this leads me to conclude that not only do the technological necessities need to be in place to bring a robot like this to the market, but also the cultural environment needs to to be condusive. People need to believe that a robot can be a simple and useful device, not just something which geeks or academics are concerned with.

  2. matt says:

    Hey Bob, that is a good point you make. I had a neighbor down the block when I was a kid who had a lawnmower which followed a wire in the ground. I thought they would take off 15 years ago, but they never did. I would think the Roomba will help pave the way for people to think about the robot lawnmower again. Social acceptance is a big leap indeed. It makes me think of the cell phone. Early adaptors didn’t mind being scowled at using their phones in public, but it took a long time for them to become “acceptable� enough for the public at large to start buying and using them.

    At a conference I was chatting with the Irobot crew and I had asked about the algorithms and how they came up with them. I had figured there was some elaborate computer simulation done to find the most effective cleaning patterns. Nope. Turns out they all just took them home and did trial runs until they got it right. Funny how simple it can be sometimes!

Leave a Reply