Monday, October 1, 2007

iRobot and the Frankenstein Complex

will American’s learn to stop worrying and love robots? That
question must be echoing inside consumer robotics company iRobot (IRBT).

The Burlington, Mass., company went public nearly two years ago and
its share price has spent much of last year below the $24 offering
price. Revenue from consumer products –60% of iRobot’s
revenue last year – fell 1% in the first half of 2007 from a year

Some of that decline was tied to waning appeal of iRobot’s
flagship consumer product, the Roomba vacuum. But iRobot had some new
products up its sleeve, and it announced them
last week: a robot to clean out rain gutters, and a mobile robot that
can send images of kids, pets or the infirm to remote PCs. The
response? iRobot’s stock was down as much as 3.2% Friday, hardly
a standing ovation.

Much of the press also seemed
indifferent, if not disappointed, reflecting a very cautious attitude
in the U.S. for robots in general: “Weird New iRobots
Unleashed” (PC World); “Robot Invasion Escalates” (Washington Post); “iRobot’s New Products Could End Up Lonely and Unloved” (

Where’s the robot love? In Asia, apparently - and in Japan, particularly. But in the U.S. there’s a robot dread running like an undercurrent beneath our robot fascination. Isaac Asimov called this robot-phobia “the Frankenstein complex”, and it is deeply ingrained in American and European culture. Take a look at this list of the 50 best movie robots: From Hal to T-2 to the Fembots, we Westerners applaud evil robots and their fourth-reel destruction.

Neena Buck, a robotics analyst quoted in the AP’s coverage, noted a sharp difference in robot comfort between East Asia and the West.

“In the U.S., we want our robots to be utilitarian,
and act as helpers to us,” Buck said. “In Japan and Korea,
they think of robots as friends and pets, and as additions to their
families.” But as prices come down, “I think Americans will
be willing to experiment with cute-ish robots that do something like
bring a family together.”

The culture gap is evident in this video
of Asimo, Honda’s humanoid robot, breaking into a trot. The
children and adults in the audience seem delighted, but my puerile
American mind felt more ambivalent: I felt both impressed by the
achievement and amused by a robot running like someone who is, shall we
say, desperate to defecate. I also found iRobot’s photos of perfectly behaved children observed by the ConnectR creepy in a way I can’t describe.

And yet, I like the idea of affordable household robots that iRobot
pioneered. iRobot built the Roomba like Apple (AAPL) built the early
Macintosh: Both created from scratch an original platform that others
can create applications for. Both made a machine simple to operate and
easy for middle-class consumers to afford. And both popularized a
fledgling industry that had massive potential over coming decades.

But household robots face an obstacle that personal computers didn’t: the Frankenstein complex.

Not only are we revolted by robots that are overly humanoid, we are
also cold to robots that are overly utilitarian. We don’t want
robots to be too much like us, but we are bored if they aren’t as
fancy as the ones we’ve seen in movies.

I still think household robots could be a huge market down the road,
and that iRobot could be a big player in it, but it will take decades.
In the meantime, a lot depends on how companies like iRobot manage our
contradictory feelings about robots.

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