"There is still a little backyard inventor/sci-fi geek in many of the folks here, for sure."
Maurice Leacock is a senior technical product manager at iRobot, which manufactures (among many other devices) the Roomba, the hands-free vacuum cleaner that bumps around your living room. He's also a husband and father of two (soon to be three). Between personal and professional obligations, he was kind enough to enlighten us about the mechanics of creating a real robot, the pratfalls of fictional ones, and why a microwave oven isn’t a robot at all.
What does a real robot look like?
We describe robots as devices, platforms or systems that “perform dull, dirty and dangerous jobs that folks are unwilling or unable to do.” That can be applied in quite a few ways. The Lexus that can park itself is technically a robot—it can semi-autonomously do something that usually requires complex human mechanics, brain power and a lot of practice to do accurately and precisely every time. And the machines that weld these cars together in manufacturing plants consistently, precisely and without taking sick days are definitely robots. They automate a task that used to require a skilled tradesman and years of apprenticeship to get just right.
All robots fundamentally have mechanical and electronic elements that are in most cases common and can be obtained in other devices and systems that cannot nor should not be classified as robots. What makes robots unique is a level and scope of system integration that harnesses the software, combined with sensors and behaviors required to do complex tasks that when observed, seem like and can fairly be described as intelligence.
But artificial intelligence and sentience—that's just the movies, right?
Those terms imply that a device or being can or has become self-aware and can consider its place in the universe. Some have claimed that they have created self-aware robots, but these robots are not very practical. iRobot’s Ava platform is somewhat self-aware as it can learn its environment and then map it. It can also learn users' physical attributes and use that information to identify and interact in a unique way with individuals. But it is not sentient—it does not know that it exists nor does it know that it exists for any specific purpose. As we have seen in sci-fi, a sentient robot could care what job it was given; it could care whether it was operating or not operating. It may care that its human overlords gave it a job or role that put it in danger. But so far, there are no robots that I can think of that have become sentient. The robots we make at iRobot are driven by software and sensing. They do not ponder or reflect about what they are doing or why they are doing it. There are rules and they strictly govern their behavior. Decisions are optimized based on analytical and logical operations and calculations and not subject to any philosophical or personality trait.
So how is a robot different than, say, a microwave?
Until I can verbally speak to my microwave to tell it just how to do my cooking so that it tastes exactly like I want it to it and the microwave succeeds (think Star Trek replicator) then it is just a microwave. If it can make my favorite meal with no additional help from me then I might consider it to be a robot.
Replicators aside, you seem to be familiar with the world of fictional robots. Was it the C3POs and Terminators that first got you hooked? Or did an interest in robotics come later?
I do watch a lot of movies. And of course sci-fi is my favorite genre. If I had to pick one robot from all media I’ve consumed it would be R. Daneel Olivaw. But it was not my love of all things mechanical in movies, TV or literature that got me here. Like most little kids with ambitious parents, I was given a Meccano set very early in life and a Capsela set after that. So eventually I put my time in at engineering school. But I didn’t really get bit by the robotics bug until just recently, when I started working with middle-school kids on their robotics programs while doing educational research and outreach in California.
Should I obtain a degree in robotics if I wanted to design and manufacture robots?
If you want to get your hands dirty and actually build, design, and create robots, then you want to get yourself a degree in computer science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, or software development. If additionally you are interested in the behavioral aspects of robots, then on top of the technical degree, you want to become a full-fledged “roboticist.” To do that, you need a masters or Ph.D. level in one or more of the above disciplines and some biology, kinematics, philosophy, cognitive psychology, or advanced sensor research—preferably at MIT, CMU, Stanford, or other institutions with solid robotics programs. I was fortunate enough to have a solid general management background having done stints in mechanical design, development and advanced marketing and business development.
Is there still an element of the backyard inventor within the industry?
There is still a little backyard inventor/sci-fi geek in many of the folks here, for sure. A large number of great ideas come from folks’ ideation in their spare time down in the basement or the garage at home. It does not hurt if these folks can also navigate the myriad business and practical realities in getting a product into consumers’ hot little hands, and are able to code in many computer languages or can build a manipulator from scratch.
Tell me a little bit more about your job, ‘senior technical product manager.’ What does that mean?
The title is an amalgam of the responsibilities that two people would normally occupy—technical marketing and product marketing management. We are not yet a big enough company here at iRobot to have two folks splitting the functions, so for now we combine the two roles into one. There is a lot of product concept work—“fuzzy front-end” brainstorming product improvements or coming up with new product ideas to feed the process and meet customer expectations. That, in turn, leads to tons of planning and development, working with CAD designers, software engineers, electrical engineers to get the products designed for customers just right. Then there is technical writing and marketing documentation, guiding industrial design and user interface studies, sales support, packaging design, photo, and video shoots. From the tactical to the strategic, product management is kind of a “catch-all” role. My interests are at the front end to middle of the process. We spend a considerable amount of time in meetings and to tell the truth, there is a lot of consensus building and collaboration. We do a lot of negotiation. We don’t really design per se, but we heavily influence the net outcome of the design process and often have to get our hands dirty leveraging our technical backgrounds in “speaking engineer” to get things resolved.