Good Robot, Bad Robot

Last week, iRobot saw a weird news article about the mapping data in their very popular Roomba vacuums. I have long coveted a Roomba, thinking that one of these days I’m just going to break down and order one. That it would mean that my travertine floors would never again sprout a swirling dust bunny.

But the news stopped me cold, and might have permanently killed my “one day” wishes to own a Roomba of my own. At first, the story was that iRobot was going to begin selling the home mapping data that has been collected over the last few years, detailing many aspects of each customer’s home.

Creepy… but that wasn’t the end of the story. After an awkward couple of days, iRobot reached out to a couple of journalists to clarify. The initial clarification was a bit vague and not all that comforting. A day or so later, they clarified the clarification. They would only use customer home mapping to allow customers to buy and use additional products and services at THEIR OWN discretion; that the company would not be selling maps of customers’ homes.

Okay… that’s better…

But I’ve still lost my desire for a Roomba. I don’t like swirling dust, so I can’t say that I won’t change my mind at some point in the future, but now I’m…. skeptical instead of enthusiastic.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard about some other robots. Baxter, Axidesk, and Moley’s Robotic Kitchen. These are robots I want now. I’m not sure exactly what I would do with any of them, but all three seem to have an exponential capability to let me create something I’ve never thought of before.

So… good robots… bad robots…

I’m not suggesting that there is anything inherently wrong with any of these robots. All of them have the possibility of making my life (and yours too) easier. My skepticism isn’t really about the technology. It about the people who make the rules of how our information is used.

It’s past time for us to work out the details of who owns the data collected about us by nearby robots, ESPECIALLY robots we have bought and paid for. And when we have clarified the differences between who owns, gathers and controls the data, we also need to work out the responsibility for who needs to secure it.

Data security and wondership rules – much, much more than the actual hardware – are the key to whether or not we see this new generation of robots as “good” or “bad”. Let’s start to get this worked out now, so we can all start amassing our own inventories of remarkable personal robots.

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