1967 • London, England
Roboticist, president and cofounder of iRobot Corporation
For roboticist Helen Greiner the future is not found in the pages of a science fiction novel; the future is here and now. As president and cofounder of the iRobot Corporation, she is responsible for helping to advance the accessibility of robots, which are mechanical devices that perform functions automatically or by remote control. Most of iRobot's inventions have been designed for use in the military or in industry, but with technology costs decreasing, the company's consumer robot market is starting to take off. Greiner predicts that within a few years almost every home in the United States will have a robot to perform such tasks as housecleaning and babysitting. Her company's vision, as she told Elizabeth Durant of Technology Review, is to "get robots into everyone's hands."
Helen Greiner was born in London, England, in 1967. Her father was a refugee from Hungary who met his future wife at the University of London. When she was five years old, the family moved to the United States where they settled in Southampton, New York, a suburb of New York City. Even when she was young, Greiner was a whiz at science. Her older brother had all sorts of neat radio-controlled cars and electronics sets and Greiner was so jealous that, as she admitted to Dataquest, she "sometimes took them." When her family bought one of the earliest personal computers (PCs), a TRS-80 purchased from Radio Shack, Greiner claimed it for her own. She spent a good deal of time tinkering with it and fine-tuning it, and soon she was using it to control the movements of some of her brother's confiscated toys.
In 1977, when she was only ten years old, Greiner went to see a movie that would point to her future life's work. That movie was Star Wars. While most girls developed crushes on Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, Greiner was captivated by the three-foot-tall spunky android, R2D2. "He was not just a machine," she told Dataquest. "He had moods, emotions, and dare I say, his own agenda. This was exciting to me—he was a creature, an artificial creature." When the ten-year-old found out that R2D2 was actually controlled by a man inside a plastic-cased costume she was crushed. From that day, Greiner vowed to create her own R2D2, a real one based on state-of-the-art technology.
"If we don't take robots to the next level, we'll have a lot of explaining to do to our grandchildren."
That vow prompted Greiner to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the finest colleges for science and technology in the world. While at MIT she dove into the study of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). AI is the computer technology that allows robots to react to situations and gives them some ability to reason. Greiner worked in MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, which was (and still is) headed by Rodney Brooks (1954–), the man who would one day be Greiner's partner at iRobot. Greiner also met Colin Angle at MIT; Angle would become the third partner in the iRobot venture. The two actually became acquainted on Greiner's first day on campus. They became fast friends because they were both devoted to the science of robots; they were also big snowboarding fans.
The iRobot Corporation designs and builds robots that do all kinds of extraordinary things, from climbing walls to squeezing through narrow pipes. In the summer of 2002, however, one of the company's robots visited the past. Earlier in the year iRobot was approached by the science and exploration magazine National Geographic and Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities to build a robot that would explore two of the shafts, or tunnels, in the Great Pyramid of Giza. The pyramid, located near Cairo, Egypt, was built around 2650 B.C.E by the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu (Cheops) to serve as a tomb when he died.
The two shafts in question, a northern one and a southern one, both lead to the Queen's chamber. In the early 1990s, a German archaeologist had attempted to explore the southern shaft using a robot, but was thwarted in his efforts because the shaft was blocked as it neared the chamber. Shortly after being contacted, iRoboters went to work. First, they built a test shaft that represented the angle, height, and width of the pyramid's shaft. Then they quickly designed and built the tiny Pyramid Rover, which is only approximately 5 inches wide and 11 inches long. It can expand and contract in height from 4 to 11 inches, which made navigating through the shaft easy since it could grip the top and bottom for better stability.
The Rover was tied to a controller outside the pyramid and was equipped with lights, video equipment, and tools specific to archaeology. When it made its journey through the southern shaft it performed remarkably. Upon reaching the blocking stone, it used a gauge to figure out the thickness of the rock; the Rover then drilled a small hole through the block and inserted a tiny camera using its extending arm. Since the expedition was televised on the Fox Network, millions of people around the world were given the first glimpse into the Queen's chamber, which had been sealed for 4,500 years.
Before Greiner graduated in 1989 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering she spent some time in Pasadena, California, interning at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Her job was to help design robots that would do repairs in space. Her interest was sparked enough that she developed designs for a space robot that could grasp objects more easily. The designs became part of her master's thesis. In 1990, after earning an advanced degree in computer science, Greiner headed back to California to work at California Cybernetics, a company that made robots which helped in the manufacture of cars. Less than a year later she returned to the East Coast to form her own robot company with Brooks and Angle.
The three roboticists had a very simple plan: to build affordable robots that could be used in everyday life. A simple plan, but ambitious since the robotics field was in its early infancy. When Greiner and her colleagues first started out, she likened it to the early days of computers in the 1970s. The few robots that existed were very expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars, and they were used mostly in manufacturing, especially in the auto industry to complete such tasks as spray-painting or welding. Most of the experimentation was being done in university research labs, and that is where it usually stopped; there was very little practical application. As Greiner told Dataquest: "I saw the work going on in research labs and universities. It was really great stuff, but it all seemed to die when the funding ran out, or when the student left. I found this really appalling." She went on to explain, "Commercial successes will drive the innovation."
Calling their company IS Robotics, the MIT partners set up shop in Angle's apartment. Greiner was named president, Angle became the chief executive officer, and Brooks took on the role of chief technology officer. They started out building robots for university researchers at a cost of $3,000 each. Since they only sold about sixty per year, and the cost of parts was steep, the company barely broke even. The partners worked eighteen-hour days, writing their own computer codes and soldering parts, parts that were frequently built in MIT's machine shop. Eventually they were able to hire a handful of other engineers, but they also recruited interns from MIT who were paid minimum wage. They were so dedicated to their vision that they put up all the manufacturing costs themselves, maxing out their credit cards and racking up over $100,000 in bank loans.
The company's first big government contract came in 1993 when it was hired by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Office of Naval Research to design an underwater minesweeper. As they do with many of their creations, company engineers modeled the robot, called the Ariel Underwater, after a living creature. In this case, the model was the ghost crab, a burrowing crustacean that lives on Atlantic and Caribbean beaches. Like the ghost crab, Ariel has six legs and can sway with the tides while still maintaining a grip on the ocean floor. It is programmed to detect mines, explosives set in the ground or under the water; it can also place explosives and scurry away before they blow up.
Boosted by their success, the partners moved into headquarters based in Somerville, Massachusetts. They also hired more engineers and changed the company name to iRobot. According to Greiner the name comes from a book of short stories written in 1950 by noted science fiction author Isaac Asimov (1920–1992). In addition, the company began to take on some nonmilitary work. For example, they contracted with the oil-service company Baker Hughes to design a robot that could travel miles underground to make repairs in oil-well bores. The bulk of iRobot's business, however, remained focused on creating products for the military.
The iRobot Corporation was named after a series of short stories written by Isaac Asimov (1920–1992), a popular American science fiction writer who wrote countless books and who many consider to be one of the greatest writers in the genre. Asimov is credited with actually coining the term robotics. He also developed what he called the "Three Laws of Robotics :
In July of 2004 a movie based on Asimov's stories was released by 20th Century Fox, called I, Robot. The film starred Will Smith (1968–) as a detective of the future investigating the death of a scientist at a company called US Robotics. Despite the Laws of Robotics, his primary suspect in the killing is a robot. The robots featured in the movie are called NS-5 models, known as the "world's first fully automated domestic assistant." In conjunction with the movie's release, 20th Century Fox launched an interactive Web site (www.irobotnow.com), which gave viewers a glimpse into the making of the movie bot; it also allowed users to virtually build their own NS-5.
Greiner and company turned a corner in 1995 when the Defense Department commissioned them to make what would become one of their premier products: a small tank-like robot, known as the PackBot, designed to scope out areas too dangerous for soldiers. At forty pounds it is portable; it is also able to climb stairs, travel over even the toughest terrain, and can right itself, using flippers, if knocked over. After the World Trade Center in New York City was destroyed in 2001, four PackBots were sent into nearby buildings to make sure the structures were sound. In 2002 the robots were first used in combat when they were sent to Afghanistan. Their mission was to search caves for enemy soldiers and to sniff out booby traps. At first U.S. soldiers were skeptical. As Greiner told Elizabeth Durant of Technology Review, "The guys were like, 'Robots? We don't need robots. We were trained how to clear caves.' But when you get to the cave's mouth, and it's dark inside ... they started calling for the robots."
Based on feedback from the field, the company was able to tweak the PackBot's design. In 2003 PackBots were sent to Iraq to search buildings, vehicles, and airfields for booby traps and mines. The robots are equipped with a camera that can transmit images back to the base. Some of the PackBots are even capable of detecting harmful gases. By 2004 estimates, approximately fifty PackBots were being used in Iraq and Afghanistan and only one of them had been lost in action.
Regardless of her success, Greiner's main goal was still to break into the consumer market with something affordable and practical. The company's first foray into the consumer market was definitely more affordable than the PackBot, which had a price tag of $45,000, but it was more fun than truly practical. In the late 1990s, iRobot partnered with the Hasbro toy company to develop a robotic doll. Engineers worked on the design for almost two years, equipping the doll's skin with electronic sensors so that it giggled when its feet were tickled and smiled when it was held. The doll was also programmed to "learn" to speak.
Called My Real Baby, the toy hit store shelves in 2000. Considering the doll was quite expensive to produce, at $95.95 it was fairly reasonably priced. Not reasonable enough for customers, however, since Hasbro sold only 100,000 units. Greiner still considered the product to be a company milestone since it paved the way for advancements in artificial intelligence. Rodney Brooks, who spoke with Joseph Pereira, explained that, "for the first time our robots had to interact with countless numbers of people in ordinary homes, not graduate students [in labs]."
In 2002 iRobot introduced the product that finally put it firmly on the consumer map, a disc-shaped robotic vacuum cleaner called the Roomba. Engineers had been working on the design for twelve years. They also put in countless hours studying the science of floor-cleaning; iRoboters even spent one night at a Target department store to watch industrial cleaners at work. The result was a 5-pound, 13-inch-wide appliance that looks very much like a horseshoe crab. It runs on rechargeable batteries and propels around a room in wide circles, bouncing lightly off any obstacle it encounters. When it is finished, it stops, beeps, and turns itself off.
According to the company, Roomba has enjoyed brisk sales. It also received wide publicity on television, radio, and in countless magazines. Oprah Winfrey (1954–) named it "one of her favorite things," and the Roomba was awarded the seal of approval from Good Housekeeping, a magazine that has long served consumers. In addition, iRobot and Roomba received hearty approval within the robotics industry. As Craig Jennings, president of the Robotic Industries Association, told Elizabeth Durant, "Nobody else has a product that has had the success of Roomba. I think [iRobot] hit a home run."
By 2004 the tiny company that was started in a scientist's apartment employed over 120 people, and was based in Burlington, Massachusetts, with branch offices in Milford, New Hampshire, and San Luis Obispo, California. It had contracts in multiple markets, including academic, industrial, military, and consumer, which made it the largest, privately owned robotics company in the world. The corporation's mission, however, remained roughly the same. As stated on the iRobot Web site, the partners pledge "to build really cool stuff; to make money; to have fun; and to change the world."
Because of the company's growth and success, its founders, especially Greiner, began to receive quite a bit of recognition. In 2002 Greiner was named an Innovator for the Next Century by MIT's Technology Review ; in 2003, she made Fortune magazine's list of the Top 10 Innovators Under 40 in the United States. According to Greiner, however, iRobot was just beginning to take off. "There's so much room for innovation and new ideas," she commented to Kristin Weir of Current Science.
Greiner's predictions for the future of robotics are great. She told Deepa Kandasamy of Dataquest that according to U.S. military officials within fifteen years, "one-third of all military vehicles will be unmanned." She also believes that given the advancements in AI technology and the drop in costs for robot components, such as computer chips, consumer products will become even more affordable. "Within five years robots will be cleaning floors and acting as remote eyes and ears," Greiner enthused to Kandasamy, "Within fifteen years, they will act as true personal assistants and friends." When asked about her personal vision, Greiner, whose corporate office is strewn with toy robots, replied that she sees "our robots taking on all dangerous jobs. A robot in every office building. A robot in every home that has a computer. We will change the world with this technology."
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