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iRobot: Past, Current, and Future

Yesterday Babson hosted the 2nd Babson/Bentley Mathematics & Science Colloquium: “Chasing Asimov's Dream One Vacuuming Robot at a Time.” I brought my son, Chris, whose interest in robots prompted him to   create one from random parts of cars, lawnmowers, and vacuum cleaners when he was a young teen.

Orin Hoffman, Director of Third Party Development at iRobot, presented the talk offering a history of robotics – going back to Aristotle(!); the definition of robot: servant; and a demonstration of iRobot products now being used in the home and by our military.

iRobot was founded in 1990 by MIT roboticists and has been a public company since 2005.

Along with an audience of about 35 in an Olin Hall classroom, we were captivated watching a robot raise and lower its arm to grasp paper with its claw-like appendage and moving up and down stairs effectively, though not gracefully. 

Hoffman also brought an iRobot Roomba and demonstrated its vacuuming ability. Asked if he has nicknames for the robots, Hoffman said “No,” but the most common nickname for the vacuuming tool is “Rosie” after the housecleaning robot in The Jetsons.

I can't wait for the ironing robot…

Hoffman presented slides of robots through history, and videos of what modern-day robots are doing in medicine, in the home, and in the military. iRobots are currently on active duty in Iraq, used to determine ahead of time, the layout of buildings they want to enter, and to sense out IED's in the field without having to send soldiers.

One of the slides showed the remains of a robot in a box – in hundreds of pieces – sent back to the Burlington, Mass. company. The box was marked “Killed in action” with the date.  Hoffman is often asked how it makes them feel to have an expensive and complicated device returned in that condition. His impassioned response is that it makes them feel great because it means at least one soldier's life was spared.

Robotics hasn't been science fiction for decades. It's a growing and fascinating field and one to consider after graduating. When they make one that will do tax returns, I'll be a major stockholder!