A Roomba registered a woman on the toilet. How did the screenshots end up on Facebook?
iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner, who now runs a startup called Tertill that sells a garden weeding robot, points out that by collecting all this data, companies are not trying to violate the privacy of their customers. They’re just trying to make better products or, in iRobot’s case, “do better cleaning,” she says.
Yet even the best efforts of companies like iRobot clearly leave gaps in privacy protection. “It looks less like malice and more like incompetence,” says Giese, the IoT hacker. “Developers are traditionally not very good [at] security stuff. Their attitude becomes “Try to get the feature, and if the feature works, ship the product.”
“And then the scandals break out,” he adds.
Robot vacuums are just the start
The appetite for data will only increase in the years to come. Vacuum cleaners are just a small subset of the connected devices that proliferate in our lives, and the biggest names in robot vacuums, including iRobot, Samsung, Roborock and Dyson, express far bigger ambitions than automated floor cleaning. . Robotics, including home robotics, has long been the real prize.
Consider how Mario Munich, then senior vice president of technology at iRobot, explained the company’s goals in 2018. In a presentation on the Roomba 980, the company’s first computer vision vacuum cleaner, he showed images from the device’s perspective, including one of a kitchen with a table, chairs and stools, alongside how they would be labeled and perceived by the robot’s algorithms. “The challenge is not to vacuum. The challenge is with the robot,” Munich explained. “We would like to know the environment so that we can modify the operation of the robot.”
This larger mission is evident in what Scale’s data annotators were asked to label – not items on the floor that should be avoided (a feature iRobot promotes), but items like “cabinet”, “counter kitchen” and “shelf”, which together help the Roomba J series device recognize the entire space in which it operates.