The newer generation of Roomba models made by iRobot (more specifically, the 960 and the 980) work by creating digital floor maps of their customers’ home. This is to navigate around obstacles efficiently and to ensure every corner of the home is cleaned properly.
iRobot CEO, Collin Angle recently told Reuters about their intent to share (corrected from the word sell) this floor map data to deliver “a personalized smart home experience”. Now what the hell is that, one may rightfully ask? According to Collins, iRobot is planning to draft a deal with Amazon, Apple, or Google to share for free the mapped information. This data will likely give out the floor plan of your home and the position and layout of furniture. It is also likely to spill the beans on how much vacant floor space your home has. Although it stands corrected, the intention of giving this data to a 3rd party for commercial benefit is clear in my point of view.
This announcement has obviously left its fair share of people upset and panicked. Is it time to sound the alarm bells? According to Angle, there is no cause for concern. He assures customers and investors that they will “ask your permission” before storing the floor map data.
With Collins not confirming how this data is going to be utilized it has left enough room for speculation. If you choose to share this data, then you might get targeted furniture advertisements to fill up the empty spaces in your home. Powered by the new information, Amazon’s individualized product suggestions are likely to become more relevant (if that’s even possible). It can even lead to a better smart home experience where lights and smart air conditioners respond automatically when people walk into a particular room. If iRobot reaches a deal with Facebook, then the data can be used to offer advertisers a few more options to improve the efficiency of their targeted ads.
What is interesting, amidst the outcry of privacy rights activists, the announcement has managed to garner the positive support of investors. iRobot shares soared 4% to reach $91.92 after the interview was made public by Reuters.
If you are worried about invasion of privacy don’t throw out your trusty robot vac yet. First off, not all Roomba models come with the capability to map and send floor data to iRobot network. Old Roombas work by randomly moving around the floor and reacting to obstacles as and when they encounter them. They simply do not have the necessary gear to perform such a complex task. It’s only the Roombas sold after 2015 that comes with built-in cameras and the sophisticated sensors required to successfully map your floor – the 960 and the 980 models. Adding to that, in a recent public statement, Collins assured that no data will be shared or sold to third parties without taking explicit consent from the customers.
Things are left unclear about how and what data iRobot plans to share in the future. However, there is a bit of data sharing going on right now. Back in March this year, newer generation Roombas became compatible with Amazon Alexa. This feature allows customers to communicate with their robot vacs using voice commands. In order to make the Roombas compatible with Alexa, iRobot had to share floor maps and cleaning data with Amazon. This of course was done after taking permission from customers. Also, there is no evidence to imply that Amazon utilises this information
for marketing purposes, but then again, think from Amazon’s perspective: why wouldn’t they use this?
iRobot is not the only one capable of sharing data. All companies which produce SLAM enabled robot vacuums connected to your router have the means to do it. The list includes Xiaomi, Neato and Dyson. Let’s take Xiaomi for example. The Chinese producer can very well use the floor plan data in order to promote other gadgets they produce. One good application which just came out of my head would be to measure the intensity of the Wi-Fi signal in order to sell you their Wi-Fi networking gadgets (routers, switches, repeaters and so on). The possibilities are virtually endless.
As for privacy, there are a few ideas I’d like to discuss with you. First of all, robot vacuums which have cameras and which can send a video stream over internet are, as you might expect, posing a security threat. They can be hacked. It’s not impossible. I’m sure big producers such as iRobot or Dyson have this covered with proper security protocols, but I’m also pretty sure you have to do regular firmware updates. Using a LIDAR laser, as in the case of Neato or Xiaomi, diminishes this risk. However, you are not 100% protected. Imagine that Xiaomi is bought by a furniture company such as Ikea. They can literally see whether you’re missing a couch or a office.
What’s left to add is that if you get a cheaper robot, i.e. one produced by iLife, you don’t have to worry about this. However, not having a map means the floor won’t be cleaned as thorough as you may need. At the moment, I wouldn’t stress too much over this, the discussion for sharing/selling floor maps is still at its infancy. But I wouldn’t be surprised if an AI from Amazon would make me a customized offer for a new leather couch the minute I throw out the old one, 5 years from now. What do you think about this subject? Would privacy concerns keep you from buying a good robot vacuum cleaner?