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There Might Not Have Been An iRobot Without Rosie The Robot

How a fascination with The Jetsons‘s maid inspired a whole generation of roboticists, including iRobot CEO and cofounder Colin Angle.

There Might Not Have Been An iRobot Without Rosie The Robot
[Photos: Jetsons: via Wikipedia; Roomba: courtesy of iRobot]

Of the 14 million robots iRobot CEO and cofounder Colin Angle has seen go to work in homes worldwide, none is more important than Model XB-500.

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Don’t bother looking for XB-500 in the iRobot stockroom, because it isn’t there. In fact, you might know XB-500 by a different name altogether: Rosie, the robot maid on The Jetsons.

After announcing the latest Roomba yesterday, Angle said Rosie is what ignited his company’s interest in robots that cleaned to begin with. When iRobot was founded 25 years ago, people kept asking, “When do I get Rosie?”

Rosie, Angle said, has “had a huge influence on the industry.” But she did much more than clean, and in some ways she might still be something of a goal when it comes to the future of robotics.

“You gotta feel bad for George and his trials and tribulations,” Angle said. “Mr. Spacely—I’m not sure he’s the ideal boss, but it’s a wonderful show, because it showed robots and people living together. I think it almost established the idea of how we were supposed to have robots in our lives: making them better.”

The first episode of The Jetsons (which aired in 1962) is all about Rosie doing just that. She’s the catalyst for the entire show and, once she’s in the Jetsons’ home, she improves the life of everyone in the family:

  • She cleans the rug so Jane doesn’t have to
  • She helps Judy with her homework
  • She scratches George’s back
  • She plays ball with Elroy
  • She cooks a delicious dinner (“filet of leftovers”) for the boss, Mr. Spacely, and even lights his cigar
  • She gets George fired for the first of many times when she slams dessert on Mr. Spacely’s head. But the pineapple upside-down cake is so delicious Mr. Spacely gives George his job back—with a raise!

The Roomba 980 still has a lot of boxes to check off on that list, but having added mapping is a huge leap forward for robotics, Angle said.

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“This is a big one,” Angle said of the latest advance. “We were kind of stuck until we could navigate.”

Angle said that the next big hurdles for cleaning robots are understanding the home and being able to create manipulation capabilities.

“If we want the future that Rosie promised us to be real,” he said, “we need to stay at the challenge of not just making vacuuming robots or not just making a demonstration of a robot with an arm. We have to make it work in people’s homes, which are very different, and at price points people can afford.”

Robots have been Angle’s life work. He said he realized this was his calling when he was looking for a summer job after his junior year at MIT and applied to be an undergraduate intern at Rodney Brooks’s robot lab.

The job application was simple: write down all the things you’ve built.

“Five minutes in, a third of the people were done,” Angle said. “Ten minutes in, half the people were done. Fifteen minutes in, 80 or 90% of the people were done. Forty-five minutes later, I was still writing down things that I had built and I was the only one in the room—and I could have kept going. And I looked around and said, ‘I found home.’ This is what I was meant to be and what I was meant to do.”

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He got the job, and he and Brooks began a partnership that eventually led to iRobot.

“This is the calling for me,” Angle said, “to build robots that actually work in the real world.”

So how long will it take for the real world to realize the future that Rosie promised?

“There’s at least a number of life’s works in front of us,” Angle said. “We’re not done by any stretch of the imagination.”

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