Amazon iRobot play takes ambient intelligence efforts to next level

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What is Amazon’s $1.7 billion acquisition of iRobot, the maker of the popular Roomba vacuum cleaner, really about?

At Amazon’s Alexa Live 2022 event in late July, there were clues when the company outlined its general strategy for enabling ambient intelligence – or making AI-powered technology available without the need for users to learn how to operate a service. 

“Some companies have a vision for technology that’s rooted in phone apps or in a VR headset,” Aaron Rubenson, VP of Amazon Alexa, told VentureBeat in July. “Our goal is to build technology that allows customers to spend more time looking at the world and interacting with people.” 

At that time, just a few weeks before announcing its acquisition of iRobot, Rubenson used Roomba as an example of ambient intelligence. 

Alexa got its start, he explained, by responding to users uttering a voice command to do something. The modern Alexa service goes beyond that to anticipate what a user might want through hunches, and then enabling those hunches with routines.

One example of this concept, he added, is robotic vacuum maker iRobot, which uses hunches to analyze the usage patterns of users to recommend a routine that will optimize the cleaning process.

“One of the hallmarks of ambient intelligence is that it’s proactive,” Rubenson said. 

Given those comments, it’s no surprise that many believe Amazon’s vision of moving toward ambient intelligence is at the heart of the iRobot acquisition – and maintain that the same is true of previous acquisitions, including the electric doorbell company Ring. 

Roomba creates maps of homes

“Roomba creates a map of your internal space, which it kind of has to do in order to do its job,” said Ben Winters, counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and leader of EPIC’s AI and Human Rights Project. “If you think of that in combination with a Ring doorbell, spending habits, home network activity, your Whole Foods order, it’s this next level of having an ability to know everything about not just what your habits are, but about your home.” 

According to Brad Porter, former Amazon VP of robotics and cofounder of Collaborative Robotics, any knowledge Amazon gains from iRobot data is about its focus on robotics and consumer devices. 

“While other big tech companies are heavily focused on the metaverse, Amazon is deeply focused on physical interaction with the real world through robotics – the handful of robotics investments in other big tech companies seem far less focused,” he said. “Amazon’s experience deploying robotics in the real world is already a competitive advantage that will likely increase with this acquisition.” 

Ethical AI issues around ambient intelligence

Some experts cite ethical issues around the drive toward ambient intelligence. Triveni Gandhi, responsible AI lead at AI platform Dataiku, said the constant “listening” and monitoring required by devices for data collection isn’t always clearly communicated and rarely offered as an “opt-in” choice. 

“How is this data stored securely, who has access to it, how is it, in turn, used to train and build other unrelated models or products?” she said. “The answers to these questions are often hard to find, and in fact many users unknowingly turn over the rights to their data without understanding the full ramifications of that.”

The second issue, Gandhi continued, is that ambient intelligence, especially in the enterprise, can create a feedback cycle that might prevent innovative approaches to new problems. 

“Automating background tasks is a useful aspect of everyday AI, but it works even more effectively when it is subject to monitoring and retraining,” she said. Ambient AI, while promising, “may create blind spots based on existing biases in data, which is why human oversight and assessment of model outputs is important.” she explained. 

Amazon, iRobot and data privacy

However, Porter pointed out that large tech companies have more to lose if they lose customer trust around data privacy and, as a result, they have stronger, more mature safeguards around data privacy and data protection. 

“Without knowing the current quality of the safeguards iRobot has in place, but just based on Amazon’s typical pattern of post-acquisition investment, I expect Amazon will invest significantly in further strengthening the safeguards around any customer data iRobot collects,” he said. 

But EPIC’s Winters wasn’t so sure about Amazon’s data privacy efforts in the wake of the iRobot acquisition. 

“They know that they are creepy-sounding to a lot of people and they know they aren’t going to win those people over,” he said. “I don’t think they care that much about the sort of general consumer sentiment from people that are really concerned about Amazon – obviously you could throw out your Roomba, but the more of these acquisitions [related to] people living their lives, the less choice people have and the more different things [Amazon] could do with [them].” 

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