Helen Greiner: AI Expert and Co-Founder of iRobot
Have you ever wondered what artificial intelligence (AI) is, or how it can help people? Helen Greiner, co-founder of iRobot, the company that made the Roomba and the PackBot, could tell you! Inspired by R2-D2 at age 11, Helen has loved robots and AI technology ever since.
Greiner is an expert in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence. Besides co-founding iRobot, she’s a strong advocate for the development and use of drones. She currently serves as an advisor to the U.S. Army, where her job title is ‘Highly Qualified Expert for Robotics, Autonomous Systems, and AI’. She believes that robots will eventually be in every home, doing tasks like walking children to school or cleaning homes.
Read on to learn more about Helen Greiner, her company iRobot, and how artificial intelligence plays a role in our everyday lives.
An Early Interest in Robots
When she was 11 years old, Helen saw the science fiction movie Star Wars in theaters. She was inspired by the robot R2-D2, who is her muse: “He had a personality and he was really more than a machine. I’ve always wanted to build devices that are machines but also more than machines.” Helen started using computers when she was 11 and was active in her school math and chess teams.
But despite her obvious math and critical thinking skills, no one suggested that she study engineering. Upon receiving the Women of Vision Award, Greiner expressed her hope that today’s generation of girls will be more encouraged to go into computer science and other STEM fields: “The problems that our future engineers and scientists decide to tackle are driven in part by their life experiences, and so we need more women’s life experiences influencing our directions and designs.”
Fortunately, while in high school, Greiner saw a PBS special about MIT students building robots and decided that she would go there for college–which she did!
Greiner received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and later worked in the Jet Propulsion Lab at NASA and at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Then, with former professor Rodney Brooks and another MIT classmate, Colin Angle, she founded the company that would bring robots into people’s homes and onto the battlefield: iRobot!
In 1990, Griener co-founded and served as the first president of iRobot, a company dedicated to finding great uses for robotics technology. The company partnered with Hasbro to release its first product: an interactive robotic doll. ‘My Real Baby’ was equipped with sensors so it could react to stimulation. For example, it would laugh when it was tickled. The product did not perform well in the consumer market, however; its price of $95.95 likely deterred many customers from buying it. But Greiner notes that she, Angle, and Brooks learned a lot about the manufacturing process through this experience: “What we learned from that was to really take cost into account as the first design criteria, how to get products manufactured in the Far East and manage supply chain issues. All the things you need to get a consumer robot on the market.”
Later, iRobot produced the PackBot, a military robot that has saved hundreds of soldiers and thousands of civilians as the United States has fought against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. The PackBot does the dangerous job of identifying and disposing of bombs, so humans don’t have to.
But the iRobot invention that you’re probably most familiar with is the Roomba, the robotic vacuum. The Roomba contains features that allow it to move around furniture and along walls, such as a camera and sensors within its bumper. It also uses navigation algorithms. With all of its sensors and algorithms, the Roomba is a great example of how artificial intelligence can power something as helpful as a cleaning machine.
The first iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaner, released in 2002, used very basic machine learning to navigate through a house, according to tech writer John Brandon: “[T]he decision making back then was fairly basic. It might bump into a wall, but it would try different tactics to recover and keep cleaning, maybe using a different angle or route the second time.”
A later model, the Roomba 980, is more complex: “It uses true AI. Now, when you let the bot loose on your living room, it will scan the room size, identify obstacles, and remember how to clean the carpet and which routes work best.” But the innovation possibilities don’t stop there: In 2018, iRobot release the i7 version, which can remember the layout of your house.
Using Robots in Pyramid Exploration
As exciting as it is to have a robot help you clean your house, there are many other uses for robots in the world. In 2002, iRobot teamed up with National Geographic and archeologists in Egypt to try and solve a mystery. The Great Pyramid in Giza contains a shaft (a narrow, horizontal opening) that leads to a small door. This door is called called Gantenbrink’s Door, after the German engineer who, in 1993, used a robot to reach the door.
Televising the event to viewers around the world, iRobot’s team hoped to use their robot to find out what was on the other side of the door. After going through the shaft, the robot drilled a hole through the door and shined a light on what was on the other side–which turned out to be a small empty space and then another small door. Even though the finding was somewhat disappointing for viewers, as no treasure or special artifacts were found, this is still an example of how robots can be used to help facilitate archaeological discoveries.
Greiner has said that if you want to help people, you should study engineering. Using robotics and artificial intelligence is just one way that engineers can help improve people’s lives!
Did you know that Tynker is a great way to get kids started with robotics? Tynker pairs with Sphero robots, Parrot drones, LEGO WeDo kits, and micro:bit electronics kits, so your child can learn first-hand how they work! Learn more about how your child can code their drone or program a robot!