Remember this movie? Blade Runner, 1982 by Ridley Scott with a soundtrack by Vangelis. It portrayed a "what if" scenario with genetically manufactured beings called replicants -- human engineering at work.
The replicants looked the same as humans and were used for dangerous and degrading work in off world colonies. The two minute plot is: after an uprising, replicants become illegal on Earth and special police forces called "blade runners" are sent to run down and retire those who escaped.
It's the year 2019 and we're in Los Angeles, in a neighborhood where a particularly vicious group of replicants is hiding. Our blade runner-hero du jour is semi-retired Rick Deckard -- an Harrison Ford on top of his acting game.
We are fascinated by artificial intelligence. I remember thinking that those replicants were too perfect, too beautiful, too strong, like Rutger Hauer -- and the blade runner/Ford quite imperfect by comparison. The movie themes and classic references are too many to get into here.
A few years later, 22 to be exact, we had I, Robot starring Will Smith where according to scientists, the humanoids reflected for the most part realistic robot technology. And in between I remember Robin Williams cast as the Bicentennial Man, a robot who wants to be mortal.
This may not be a story of epic proportions although it involves robots, iRobots to be exact. I met Helen Griner, the co-founder and Chairman of the Board of iRobot at the Wharton Leadership forum in 2006. iRobot is the company that brought us the Roomba. What does a vacuum cleaner have to do with our story?
The company found out that people were hacking the original robotic vacuum cleaner to make their own robots. So they came up with iRobot Create, a Roomba without parts for aspiring robot designers. Instead of getting upset at the new uses of its proprietary technology, the company went ahead and made a version of its product available for developers and educators.
I saw the brief write up in the September issue of Fast Company and remembered liking the ingenuity of Ms. Griner. iRobot is currently running a challenge that could win you $5,000.
So far there are 258 registered users in the community and some universities are buying the devices to teach students about robotics. Chances are this forum and space would have existed anyway somewhere online as there seems to be enough projects going on. Why not using the opportunity to open up the tool (literally) to developers and students? iRobot made this gutted version of the Roomba available at $130 vs. more than double the price for a fully outfitted model.
The company may end up benefiting from discoveries of new uses in addition to benefiting from being a brand that opened up the conversation with its users. Want to know what the most complicated use is? Fetching the beer from the refrigerator.