Less than two weeks after announcing the acquisition of US healthcare company One Medical, Amazon is continuing its expansion with a $1.7 billion bid for iRobot, the maker of Roomba automatic vacuum cleaners.
The acquisition will bolster Amazon’s line of smart home products and add to the retail giant’s vast store of consumer data. The move also raises a number of questions.
Why is Amazon doing this? Should we, as consumers, be worried? What will Amazon do with another product that generates huge volumes of data about its users?
The purchase seems like a natural fit for Amazon’s apparent plan to take over the home. The technology giant is already present in homes around the world through the Alexa voice assistance system and products such as Echo smart speakers, Ring surveillance cameras and drones.
Amazon already makes a “home surveillance” robot called the Astro, though it’s only sold “by invitation.”
However, the iRobot purchase may be less about products and more about data. $1.7 billion may sound like a lot, but Amazon gains not only iRobot’s trove of consumer data, but also access to its current fleet of robots that it’s constantly scanning.
Mapping our homes
Roombas collect a particular type of data about customers or, to be more precise, about their homes. While the original robot vacuum cleaners stumbled around, avoiding obstacles as best they could, the latest models map users’ homes in great detail.
This is great if you want your vacuum cleaner to clean your house autonomously and avoid falling down the stairs, but it does raise a number of privacy issues.
What about privacy?
Having a vacuum cleaner store your home layout isn’t a huge concern in and of itself, it just makes it more efficient. But when map data is stored in the cloud, we lose some control over it.
Currently, Roomba’s maps are theoretically only accessible to iRobot. But under Amazon ownership, we can’t be sure who will have access to the data or how it will be used.
When asked about the possible use and storage of map data, an Amazon spokesperson noted that the deal has not yet been finalized with iRobot, so they have no details to share.
They added that the company does not sell customer data to third parties or use it for purposes that they have not consented to.
In the recent acquisition of One Medical, Amazon made it very clear that medical data would be “handled separately from all other Amazon businesses, as required by law.” However, he added:
Amazon will never share One Medical customers’ personal health information outside of One Medical for advertising or marketing of other Amazon products and services without clear customer permission.
“Clear permission” sounds good, but in practice consumers often give “permission” to all kinds of activities that are explained only in lengthy and little-read terms and conditions. In practice, this means that permission is often misinformed.
It should come as no surprise that Roomba users will one day be asked to agree to an updated terms and conditions giving Amazon permission to use their in-home location data to enable further optimization of products and services. In essence, to sell more stuff, or make other products work “better.”
Roomba owners are unlikely to see any significant changes in the coming months, but it is very likely that they will soon receive user agreement updates in their email inboxes and apps.
Although initially they will simply reflect the change in ownership and associated legal responsibilities, at some point we may also see data sharing requests.
Where can this take us? The smart homes they could become somewhat intelligent (yes, there are some positive aspects).
If Roomba integrates with cameras in the home, for example, it could automatically detect and clean up spills. Using location data, the Roomba could make sure it finishes cleaning before its owner gets home from work.
Even home security systems could use future Roomba devices with cameras as sentinels (it’s probably been better for everyone that iRobot sold its military division in 2016).
Though gun-wielding robots probably aren’t on Amazon’s product roadmap yet, Roomba’s maps could give the company even more granular insight into customers.
Where is all this going?
With smart speakers and cameras already listening and watching, with a wealth of consumer buying habits monitored through its website and partners, and with security systems built into our homes, Amazon already knows a lot about us.
In an extrapolation in the style of BlackMirror From the tech giant’s recent moves, you can imagine a future where Amazon’s health insurance (with a discount for Prime subscribers, naturally) uses Ring and Roomba cameras to study your living conditions and behavior patterns, and suggest interventions and price accordingly.
Amazon Care (already exists) could let you know that it knows you missed a recommended gym visit because you’ve been home all day. Or maybe it’s a matter of diet, and the ever-obedient Amazon Robot Mower has reported a pile of empty pizza boxes and beer bottles next to the bins.
For now, this is just a fantasy, but Amazon is in possession of most of the technology and data to make it happen.