Vacuuming sucks. Ba-dum tss. Now that I’ve cleared that obligatory dad joke hurdle, let’s talk about robot vacuums and the recent shift in power when it comes to their production. Vacuuming and more recently mowing are two industries which have perhaps seen the greatest traction when it comes to robotizing a manual task around the home. Really, they’re the perfect candidates due to their repeatability, low-risk and simple required function - both when drastically simplified only needing rotating mechanics and the ability to travel from point to point. How then is Amazon now involved with keeping our floors clean? Can they be trusted not to judge our homes as they trundle through picking up crumbs?
iRobot, the company behind the Roomba line of robot vacuum cleaners, has recently been purchased by the retail giant Amazon for around $1.7 billion. Perhaps a good indicator of their success has been that, since their initial automated cleaner was released back in 2002, much like any facial tissue is a Kleenex; any robot vacuum is labelled as a Roomba. Since then we’ve invited more than 40 million of iRobot’s products into our homes and businesses. They’ve become the go-to for releasing us from one of the more universally disliked chores of adulting. Amazon, with their deep pockets and wide net, clearly agree it’s an appealing notion to offload such a thing to a robot.
They’re no strangers to home automation tech, either. Between integrating third party offerings with your Echo to give you “Alexa, do a thing!” convenience and simply buying entire companies in the smart home space, it’s not difficult to see how good of a fit iRobot is. As someone who runs an almost all-Apple household, I have to admit that Amazon has done a much better job of playing nicely with other companies when it comes to compatibility. While I have to pay close attention to what works with Apple HomeKit, I’ve never met a device which doesn’t immediately work with Amazon’s Smart Home features. Their recent acquisition will mean better “Alexa, vacuum the hallway.” functionality isn’t far off.
Far from simply making our lives easier though, this purchase includes something Amazon are deft at putting to work: user data. In the early days robot vacuums would navigate by bumping into things, now though they’re equipped with an array of sensors for mapping out routes and, in more modern offerings, cameras to avoid chewing up cables, rugs and pet mess. Now these sensors aren’t able to steal your credit card number or see if you prefer KFC over Popeye’s, but they could be used to build data on the square footage of your home and how messy it is. One could, combined with the other information readily available, use this to determine home value, income and most probably in this case; what sort of things you’re likely to be buying.
So while we are set to see some major innovation in the home automation space, it’s important to see Amazon’s latest purchase for what it is. Amazon could have just as easily produced and marketed their own robot vacuum, and we’d have probably bought it. The value here is in the existing market share, and the data which that will provide. Equally as important is to know that this isn’t identifiable data. The size and layout of your home becomes a number in a database of millions of others and used as part of a bigger picture. But just in case Amazon’s evil plan is to give our Roombas free will, I for one welcome the clean carpeted world that will surely bring forth.