How iRobot uses Data Science to Innovate — Interview with Angela Bassa

Ben Newton
Jun 24 · 7 min read
Angela Bassa, Director of Data Science, iRobot

In this episode of the Masters of Data podcast, I speak with a guest who is literally helping to change the way people live their lives. The guest on this episode, Angela Bassa, hails from one of the most innovative robotics companies on the planet, the aptly named iRobot — the creators of the iconic Roomba vacuum robot. Angela is the Director of Data Science at iRobot and talks to us about how iRobot’s recent product announcements reveal more than just product innovation. Their new iRobot 2.0 platform is a new approach to how they build robots, software, and also the place of data science at iRobot. Angela sits down with me to talk about iRobot, their place in the quickly growing world of technology and robotics and how they are still prioritizing things like privacy and cooperation with their clients to provide, and increasingly better experience from their products.

Angela starts by offering a little bit of background as to how she found her way into the role at iRobot. As she notes, “I actually came into data science from the math background. There’s sort of a dichotomy from people who come into it from the software development side and people who come into it from the math and analytical side and that’s where I came from. So, I have a lot to learn in terms of software development and engineering. Then I transitioned into more marketing territory. That’s when I discovered the vast troves of data that are collected about us as we traverse the interwebs.” And while having an increasing understanding of data, how it’s often collected and how it’s then used ultimately drove her to personally reduce her online presence, it did provide her a framework of how data can be used and collected in a way that is ethical and useful; something she prioritizes in her work with iRobot.

But before we navigated through the ideas of privacy and data, we discussed the history of iRobot and how they became relevant in the space they now operate. As Angela explains, “It’s almost 30 years old…There was a heavy presence in remote robotics and telepresence robotics. [The question became], how can you have hospitals in rural areas be able to treat the kinds of situations that patients might come in when you don’t have experts at every hospital? So, bringing in that expertise into the operating room of rural remote hospitals was one of the first types of applications that iRobot was involved in.” And while iRobot has had its hand in many things over the last 30 years, they have now found a niche that is bridging the gap between technology (like robotics) and simplifying people’s daily life. They are doing this by finding ways to improve how technology coordinates with each other. “We’re trying to abstract away, we’re trying to simplify the execution of these tasks as much as possible so that our customers don’t have to lift a finger and it seems automagical from their end. But you’re right. What that means is that on our end it’s extremely complicated, especially because we want to make sure that we take care of all of the edge cases and we take care of all of the things that different environments in the wild have that is really hard to test for.” She continues, “I think iRobot started as a hardware company and a little while ago it became obvious that software was a coequal partner in the ability to solve robotic problems. And now, what we see is that iRobot is becoming a data company. Not in a sense where the data is the thing that is valuable to us that we’re going to make money off it, but no it’s the thing that enables us to deliver on that robotic promise. And so, all of the things that we do, we do with the permission of our customer.” And that commitment to protecting and upholding privacy and trust is something that is highly coveted and respected in today’s data and tech-driven world.

“We’re trying to abstract away, we’re trying to simplify the execution of these tasks as much as possible so that our customers don’t have to lift a finger and it seems automagical from their end” — Angela Bassa, iRobot

Again, there’s no doubt that privacy is a hot topic today as we live in a world that is increasingly dependent on technology and data points that are being gathered. But how do companies like iRobot actually uphold the privacy of people who are using their technology when data is inevitably being collected? “Privacy is built into the fabric of how we architect our systems, how we utilize this information, and who we utilize this information with. So, we are making our own customer care interactions smarter, we’re making our own product development more mindful and more targeted. We are improving the experience that our customers have when they use our products, but one thing that we’re not doing is jeopardizing that trust. Because our customers are bringing us into their most hallowed space, right? They’re bringing us into their home and so we want to be extremely mindful of that.” And protecting that honored place is something that is at the forefront of the iRobot team.

The thought of having a smart home is something that is in increasing demand as we all want the simplicity and ease of use that comes with having technology do our work for us, but it’s something that requires an incredible amount of trust; something that iRobot understands clearly. Angela explains, “I mean the smart home, when we think about that as the ultimate bet, it’s going to be enabled by trust, right? It’s going to be the partners that our customers are going to choose to continue to partner with like iRobot are the ones who hold that trust very carefully and we understand what our role is in that partnership. And so, when we analyze information that’s made available to us, we do that with the permission of our customers and we do that with informed consent. We do that with our customers being aware of how that information is going to be used to what purpose and to what extent. And they’re able to stop sharing that information with us whenever they want to. And that’s something that’s important to us.” As Ben and Angela review, there is something amazing about having technology developed that allows people to enjoy a less stressful life, especially when it’s paired with the ease of mind knowing that the data collected and your privacy are being treated ethically.

Outbound Links & Resources Mentioned

Masters of Data Podcast Episode: http://www.sumologic.com/podcast/irobot-data-science-angela-bassa/

Learn more about Angela:

Learn more about iRobot and their products:

Follow Angela on Twitter @AngeBassa

Connect with Angela on LinkedIn:

Takeaways

● iRobot is nearly 30 years old and started with some roboticists out of MIT.

● Originally it had a heavy presence in remote robotics and telepresence robotics.

● The question they sought to answer was, “How can you have hospitals in rural areas be able to treat the kinds of situations that patients might come in when you don’t have experts at every hospital?” So, bringing in that expertise into the operating room of rural and remote hospitals was one of the first types of applications that iRobot was involved in.

● iRobot also had a strong presence in the military realm with autonomous vehicles that could explore areas for ordinance removal or things of that nature. The idea was that you don’t have to send humans into a dangerous environment that might blow up-you send a machine that if it blows up, at least it’s not tragic in the same sense that it would be to lose human life.

● The Roomba has become the flagship product of iRobot.

● iRobot is trying to simplify the execution of tasks as much as possible so that customers don’t have to lift a finger and it seems automagical from their end.

● With a company that’s 25 or 30 years old, there are a lot of baked in assumptions and code that is really hard to transition out of.

● iRobot has a new shared software development platform and a new design language that goes across product lines.

● They’ve made this investment to enable a platform so that they can reuse, and can have multi-robot architectures and modularized components.

● While iRobot started as a hardware company, it became obvious that software was a coequal partner in the ability to solve robotic problems, so now iRobot is becoming a data company.

● All of the things that they do are done with the permission of the customer. Privacy is built into the fabric of how they architect systems, how they utilize this information, and who they utilize this information with.

● The smart home idea has to be enabled by trust. It’s going to be the partners that customers are going to choose to continue to partner with like iRobot are the ones who hold that trust very carefully and iRobot understands what their role is in that partnership.

● When they analyze information they do it with the permission of customers and with informed consent. Customers are aware of how that information is going to be used to what purpose and to what extent.

● As a company, you want your teams to reflect the humans that you are going to be serving.

Newtonian Nuggets

Thoughts on what's going on in technology, data, analytics, culture and other nerdy topics

Ben Newton

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Proud Father, Avid Reader, Musician, Host of the Masters of Data Podcast, Product Evangelist @Sumologic

Newtonian Nuggets

Thoughts on what's going on in technology, data, analytics, culture and other nerdy topics