iRobot and the Frankenstein Complex

metropolisWhen 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 ago.

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” (TheStreet.com).

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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