BEDFORD, MASSACHUSETTS – Dog shit has been a persistent problem for the popular robot vacuum cleaner, Roomba, until just a few days ago when the domestic droid-maker announced a new software update, that promises to avert the “excrement-fueled nightmare” faced by at least one lazy homeowner.
For a company that deployed its DARPA-funded prototypes to sift through the rubble of the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001, it seems strange that such an obvious household hurdle would have remained unaccounted for all this time. iRobot co-founder Colin Angle asserts that it took “years” to compile a “diverse dataset of poop” robust enough to create a firmware upgrade that successfully skirted the family pet’s bad behavior. Almost twenty years since the device came to market, perhaps the best explanation for the lapse can be found in the firm’s predilection for military applications of its technology.
Co-founded by three members of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1990, iRobot began its relationship with the Department of Defense early on. In 1995, the company released its first multipurpose domestic robot controlled by cameras and the nascent commercial “web”, called iRobot LE. Three years later, co-founder Helen Greiner claims she was running a “tank-like prototype robot” down the hallways of the Pentagon. Contracts with DARPA and NASA soon followed.
By 2008, iRobot had already provided over 1,300 “field-tested and combat-proven PackBot robots” to the DoD and had secured a multi-year commitment from DARPA’s LANdroid program
to develop “small, inexpensive, intelligent, and robust” robots that would “enable the warfighter to deploy and maintain a communications infrastructure in dense urban environments”. Greiner praised the government’s R&D awards that allowed iRobot to “continue driving innovation toward the next generation of revolutionary mobile, tactical combat robots”.
In 2018, Greiner was sworn in as Highly Qualified Expert for Robotics, Autonomous Systems, and AI (ASA(ALT)) for the U.S. Army. Doing the honors was her long-time friend and former Program Manager for Soldier Systems, Bruce Jette, who in that capacity contracted iRobot to provide its “newly minted Rapid Equipping Force (REF)” robots to clean up another shit show – this one in Afghanistan as the U.S. was beginning its invasion in 2001.
Mickey Mouse Trap
With its defense contracting division now spun off into Endeavor Robotics, Angle continues as CEO of iRobot’s consumer business and has partnered with leading electronic components manufacturers such as MuRata through his non-profit foundation Science From Scientists, to target the younger generations by promoting STEM education programs, which are ultimately designed to guarantee the future profits of unnecessary commercial robotics products, like the Roomba.
Together with MuRata and Walt Disney Parks Creative Entertainment, Angle’s organization – run by his wife, Erika – put together an exhibit at Epcot Center in Walt Disney World called the SpectacuLAB in 2017. The exhibit ran until January of 2019 and was the last in a long-running series of technology-focused shows under the “Innoventions” moniker, which featured dozens of tech-themed events sponsored by the biggest names in Silicon Valley, the plastics industry and military contractors like IBM, Honeywell and Raytheon.
SpectacuLAB, like most Innoventions exhibits, was a 3-D version of an advertorial (magazine ads disguised as articles), only in this case children were presented with advertisements in the guise of scientific experiments that help them “discover how science and Murata technologies come together to create products such as consumer devices, healthcare equipment, and automotive electronics”.
The use of theme parks, and Disney’s in particular, as a testing ground for technology that is later rolled out in society at large isn’t new. Just last spring, its Orlando park unveiled “optional” facial recognition technology to “improve guest experience” and in the summer of last year, all four theme parks implemented AI technology developed by military contractor Evolv Technologies.
Just as MuRata closed the Innoventions era at Disney World in 2019, another one of its partners – Comcast – announced a collaboration with Universal Parks and Resort, only a stone’s throw away from Space Mountain, to deploy the cable giant’s smart city integrated hardware and software platform, MachineQ, to run the theme park’s “IoT” projects.
In addition to MuRata, MachineQ works with global semiconductor manufacturers Semtech and ST Microelectronics (life.augmented) to lay down the smart city infrastructure that consumer robot technologies like those produced by iRobot and the broader Internet of Things marketplace, including telehealth and other remote-services, will depend on for their revenue pipelines.
Deployment is not waiting on implementation of 5G, which MuRata CEO of North America, David Kirk, concedes will eventually drive the scaling up of things like “autonomous driving, robotics, healthcare, [and] telemedicine”. Nevertheless, large-scale public networks that don’t require Wi-Fi at all are being built by MachineQ and its partners using Long Range Wide Area Networking or LoRaWAN protocols, which let “smart” sensors talk to the Internet.
Despite serious security flaws, LoRaWAN offers a quick path to the smart city, digital ecosystems that underpin the so-called 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) and its full-spectrum surveillance technology-based marketplaces. LoRaWAN can present catastrophic risks for medical IoT devices, in particular, due to their vulnerability to DDoS attacks “that can disrupt communications between connected devices” or even input false data.
But, such risks may just be the price of doing business for a telehealth market that is expected to be worth $266.8 billion by 2026 – an opportunity the Angles are certainly not willing to miss. Together with her husband Colin, Erika E. Angle leveraged her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Boston University School of Medicine and a Bachelor of Science from MIT to found a biotechnology company called Ixcela, which developed a platform based on the genome-based gut health theories of another MIT grad and Ixcela co-founder, Wayne R. Matson.
The Other, Faster 5G
Theme parks are not the only testing ground for LoRaWAN smart city infrastructure. In 2017, MachineQ and Semtech rented multiple Airbnb properties near an historic African American burial ground in Philadelphia to carry out the “LoRaWAN Capacity Trial in Dense Urban Environment“.
The test took place in three phases over the course of 36 hours. Between 90% and 85% of the sensor devices were installed inside the rental units, though it is unclear if any of the tenants who may have been occupying the apartments were made aware of the experiment. The rest of the sensors were placed inside parked cars around the “trial area to represent light indoor use cases”.
Results proved that “the network server and cloud infrastructure supported all of the traffic successfully […] despite the real-world urban environment with various obstructions from different materials and infrastructure” and an overall success rate of “over 95%” and that “network capacity is not an obstacle for ubiquitous LoRaWAN coverage”.
Since the experiment, Comcast’s MachineQ, which is led by Verizon’s head of 5G partnerships, has been quietly rolling out its proprietary LoRaWAN platform in cities around the United States, expanding both enterprise and municipal level usage of its IoT platform to “more than a dozen markets.” MachineQ partner Semtech has seen its LoRaWAN business segment grow by more than 60% year over year and now represents 34% of its total revenue.
MuRata’s North American CEO Kirk stresses the “criticalness of data” in the emerging data-capitalist models. While 5G’s low-latency will facilitate more refined implementations of technologies like true autonomous vehicles, the nuts and bolts of machine-to-machine communication required for the AI-driven, blockchain-based financial systems to function can be achieved by LoRaWAN protocols, in the meantime, and in a much faster time frame than we imagine.
Kirk also highlights the importance of government policies and “what type of services will be allowed” in order to “monetize and get a return on investment for this massive infrastructure”. A significant step was taken last week in that direction, when U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo announced the establishment of “a high-level committee to advise the President and other federal agencies on a range of issues related to artificial intelligence (AI)” as prescribed in the National AI Initiative Act of 2020.
The National AI Advisory Committee (NAIAC) will issue a report to the President after its first year and every three years, thereafter. Biden’s current Science Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and de facto liaison between the NAIAC and the Commander in Chief is Eric S. Lander – a notorious MIT geneticist and molecular biologist who was a principal figure of the Human Genome Project, with a financial interest in its medical applications.