iRobot's ConnectR is a far cry from what the science-fiction writers of a few decades ago envisioned a social robot would be, but is it a first step? Does ConnectR represent the real beginning of robot-kind?
Perhaps, but we won't have to worry too much about ConnectR taking over the world, like many of those same science-fiction writers predicted. The product doesn't have any intelligence of its own; it's controlled by the humans who use it. Aside from its surveillance capabilities, the robot is fairly innocuous. Even if all ConnectRs revolted against their families, the result would amount to little more than a lot of bruised ankles and crushed ConnectRs.
Still, there are some potential problems with the ConnectR. Security is one of them. The ConnectR software requires users to enter a phone number for the VoIP connection and a personal identification number (PIN). Each robot is programmed for up to 10 separate PINs, and it allows access by one user at a time. iRobot supposes that this information will be guarded as a secret by the family, but family secrets do have a way of being leaked to non-family members.
The ConnectR's function is meant to be purely social, and iRobot envisions its product as a means of keeping family members in the loop. But the ConnectR could also enable unwanted visitors to be connected as well. Hackers may find a way to use the ConnectR to case a house, check on the viciousness of the family dog or ensure that no one is home before breaking in. That problem is easily remedied using the ConnectR's privacy mode, which shuts off the robot's cameras and audio. This can be a two-way street, however. ConnectR owners who are away at work could use their robot to inspect their home for intruders. If homeowners disable their robot before they leave the house, hackers won't be able to access it -- but neither will the homeowners.
iRobot has taken steps to protect its ConnectRs against unwanted users. In addition to the passwords and unlisted VoIP phone numbers, the ConnectRs operate via iRobot's secure wireless network, its virtual presence network (VPN). But since the company alone controls the VPN, this means that select iRobot employees could have access to all of the ConnectR feeds in use at any given time, as well as any information passed through its network. This could possibly deter people who really value their privacy from buying the robot.
Will the ConnectR's potential pitfalls keep the world from adopting this social robot? That won't become clear until the market research comes in. Early adopters have a chance to get their hands on a ConnectR for $200 as part of the company's pilot program. By agreeing to fill out a few surveys and participate in an interview, select consumers can get one before they're widely released for $500 in 2008.
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