Warning: Amazon Vacuums Up A Treasure Map
Analysis. A few years ago, I purchased a robot vacuum cleaner. And I admit, I like it. My pancake-like friend does get stuck sometimes, but it does the job (usually). It helps with house clean-up, and it’s fun to have around. In fact, my family affectionately calls it “Sparky.”
But I never really thought about Sparky’s data collection capabilities. At least not before reading a report that Amazon intends to buy out iRobot, the maker of the popular Roomba. Even though I don’t have a Roomba, that raised my eyebrows. Why iRobot?
Announcing the $1.7 billion deal, a senior Amazon executive praised iRobot’s “incredibly practical and inventive” products that help with “cleaning when and where customers want while avoiding common obstacles in the home…. Customers love iRobot products.”
So perhaps Amazon just wants to jump on a great product.
But a number of tech observers quickly expressed wariness. Maybe the excellence in robotics is not Amazon’s sole or even primary goal. After all, Roombas clean houses and learn how to avoid obstacles. To do that, they necessarily create internal maps. And those maps chart change inside a home.
“The vacuum company has detailed knowledge of our floor plans and, crucially, how they change. It knows where your kitchen is, which your kids’ rooms are, where your sofa is (and how new it is), and if you recently turned the guest room into a nursery,” said Jennifer Pattison Tuohy, a journalist focusing on smart homes for The Verge.
“This type of data is digital gold to a company whose primary purpose is to sell you more stuff,” she added.
Keep in mind, this data is not necessarily localized on a machine. iRobot uses cloud servers (in fact, it is on the Amazon Web Services Cloud) and its products encourage internet connectivity with mobile devices or smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa to meet customer demands for convenience.
If not, a smart company like Amazon can encourage us to participate in other ways. For example, last year I wrote about how the e-commerce giant began offering customers $10 of store credit if they agreed to let their palm prints be scanned into the Amazon One payment system. Apparently this biometrics program —again billed as one built for customer convenience — is having success because recent reports suggest Amazon is expanding the technology at Whole Foods grocery stores (which it owns) and is selling the technology to other stores and event spaces.
The uncomfortable truth is that — as creepy as it may feel when we stop to think about it — many of us are willing to trade personal information for convenience (or a few bucks). And Amazon appears to be banking on that including information about our homes.
Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, told Reuters in 2017, “There’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared.”
Surely that “ecosystem of things and services” is an opportunity for Amazon and its partners to sell products in a vey targeted way.
The data points from a Roomba map are just one piece of the puzzle. We shouldn’t be surprised that Amazon knows what we explore and buy on its massive (and very convenient) e-commerce platform. Similarly, we know that it knows what we like to watch or listen to if we use its video or music offerings.
But Amazon has also been gobbling up other companies or creating its own tools that may develop intimate access to us and our homes. We already mentioned Whole Foods and its ability to tie us to our food purchases. To name a few more, there’s the Ring doorbell that sees comings and goings. There is the Eero mesh WiFi router system that can track your internet network performance and what devices are connected. And, of course, there is the popular Alexa that listens attentively, converses with us, and can act as a command center — a brain, of sorts.
With this in mind, I am struck by another quote iRobot’s Angle gave to TechCrunch: “The home of the future is a robot… the vacuum cleaners and the other devices are hands and eyes and appendages of the home robot. Ultimately, this smart home of the future isn’t controlled by you… We need a home that programs itself, and you just live in your home, and the home does the right thing based on understanding what’s going on.”
For now Amazon’s purchase of iRobot is under an antitrust review by the Federal Trade Commission (along with its attempt to purchase One Medical, a subscription based primary healthcare company). But the tech giant is clearly interested in the “smart home” future.
I don’t believe we should fear the technology to come, nor should we discount benefits that may come for us and our neighbors. But it is worth being prayerfully mindful what information we may be sharing with interested parties across the world wide web. Speaking of which, I think I better go and double check that my robot vacuum is not connected online.
What do you think of this “smart home” future? Share your thoughts and prayers below.
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