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Born in the United Kingdom, Helen Greiner moved to the United States with her parents when she was five. In 1990, soon after getting a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in computer science, both from MIT, she teamed up with a professor and a fellow student to found iRobot, a company devoted to making practical robots for consumers, businesses, and the military. Among its many products, the company developed the PackBot, a small mobile robot that can scout out dangerous situations, and the Roomba, a vacuuming robot designed for home use. The company went public in 2005. In 2008, Greiner left to found CyPhy Works, a start-up focusing on flying robots, or drones. Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose spoke to her in early November.
What first got you interested in robots?
When I was 11, I went to the cinema and saw Star Wars and fell in love with R2-D2—because he had a character, a personality, an agenda to save the universe. He seemed more than a machine. I’ve been intrigued with building things that are more than machines ever since.
Is it true that you were crushed when you found out there was actually a person inside?
Yes. I was quizzing my brother on Star Wars trivia—he had learned it all—and when we got to the fact that Kenny Baker played R2-D2, I said, “What do you mean, someone played R2-D2? I thought it was a robot!” (By the way, we learned in the first episodes that R2-D2 actually got around by flying, because he couldn’t get around those jungles, or Tatooine, or up stairs with the rolling. So that’s why I had to do flying robots.)
What are the most important qualities for a successful entrepreneur?
Persistence—just in case that first idea you have isn’t the one that is a billion-dollar idea. Being able to keep at it and get through any roadblocks.
How has that played out in your own career? What did you need persistence to overcome?
Well, we started iRobot in 1990, and it wasn’t until 1998 that we took the first investment capital. It wasn’t until 2005 that we took it public. It was the longest overnight success you’ll ever see.
Most start-ups fail; most entrepreneurs don’t succeed. A lot of people can be persistent, but they can persistently fail. Is success just a matter of luck and timing?
I don’t think it’s just luck and timing; it’s more about being able to have a great idea but also have the right timing for it. Uber, for example, wouldn’t have been successful in the ’90s, because people weren’t carrying smartphones.
It’s the same with the robots. A great example is drone delivery. It’s something to be thinking about now, but it’s probably not something to do now, because some of the technology hasn’t been created and some regulatory and cultural barriers are still there. So our strategy is to put the pieces in place now, get the technologies ready, so that we’re ready to do it in five years, because that’s when I think the timing is going to be right.
I’m not saying I’ve always been successful in this. For example, I tried to do an Internet-connected robot in 2000. You see wonderful Internet-connected robots today from VGo, Suitable Technologies, Double Robotics, and a few others. But I tried to do it in 2000. It wasn’t a bad idea; I believe that people will use telepresence to do all kinds of things. But the timing was off; it was way too soon. People didn’t even have always-on Internet connections in most homes. The Internet didn’t have the optical switching networks that it has today. So I’ve learned over the years that it’s not just about the idea; it’s about the timing of the idea as well.
So entrepreneurs mix vision and practicality?
Yes, and that’s exactly where I like to play, because you could spend your life being the very, very first [and never getting anywhere]. Good entrepreneurs pick the timing—not the timing of what you can do with current technology but what you’re going to be able to do a few years from when you start. That way it all comes together, as the technology’s ready, the market’s ready, and everything’s in place to put forward a successful product.
Is that a different attitude toward innovation in robotics from what used to be the case?
It used to be that robots were laboratory demonstrations, and you would get together, and everyone would see a robot do something really cool: “Ooh, ah, the robot’s doing something. It’s great.” What we did to change that was really get robots into the hands of regular people. They could be for regular soldiers, in a form that’s rugged, reliable, and easy to use, or in people’s homes, so they’re not some esoteric technology but a practical device that people have around and use every day.
So the discipline of making a commercially viable product helps make you a better roboticist?
I think it does. Because robotic ideas are a dime a dozen, and robotic demonstrations kind of follow that. It takes a lot of nights and a lot of sweat to get a robotic demonstration done, but it’s when you’re making a product that you have to worry about things like liability, supply chains, logistics, all the different aspects of actually getting it into people’s hands. There are ten million plus Roombas out there, which has changed the feel from just being about, “Oh, the robot’s doing something; look at it!” People are using them. People have them in their homes. People see robots are helpful.
What is the relationship between entrepreneurship and innovation?
You can have innovation without entrepreneurship, but I don’t think you can have entrepreneurship without innovation. It doesn’t have to be the type of innovation that we do, building things that are completely new from a technical point of view, but it has to have some innovation behind it for the entrepreneur to succeed.
Some economists argue that entrepreneurs are great men and women whose activities create dynamism and are crucial for broader economic growth and development. Do you agree with that?
I don’t know if they’re great men and women. They’re people that have a bee in their bonnet about something. Like, I want robots to exist. That’s why I’m an entrepreneur. I passionately want the world filled with robots.
So your starting point is not, “Here’s a problem robots can solve,” but, “I like robots, and I want to see more of them”?
Yes, but remember, I started when I was 11. I think that the passion keeps you persistent in getting through the roadblocks that will come up, unless you’re insanely brilliant, like the guys at Google. If you’re going into entrepreneurship just to make money, it’s going to be tough.
The whole thing has been a dream come true for me. When we started iRobot, if we’d sold a thousand robots, we would’ve thought ourselves very successful, because nobody had sold that number of mobile robots before. (I’m not talking about the industrial automation equipment, because people had been doing that for decades.)
Is the hobbyist, the enthusiast in you, a different person from the entrepreneur, or are they tied together?
It’s very much the same. It’s the passion for the technology. I can honestly say that if I wasn’t doing this at companies, I’d be doing it in my garage. I happen to be around at a time when it’s possible to be successful in business doing it, but if I was a decade earlier, I might have a real job and be doing [the robotics] in my garage.
Many technology entrepreneurs see the state and the private sector as being at odds. Do you think the state has a role to play in entrepreneurial and technological innovation?
I think it does, but not in funding it, because that’s what venture capitalists do for a living. It’s a role of enabling. I’m a believer in clusters of activity, and we have a cluster of robot activity in the Boston area, anchored by MIT and iRobot. Now there’re hundreds of robotics start-ups, which is really exciting. To enable something like a robot community to get together—I think that’s where the government can have some role. I’m serving as an ambassador for global entrepreneurship for the president, and that can be used in diplomatic outreach, too.
You’ve worked in academia, on government contracts, and in the private sector. Are there different mindsets that relate to innovation and entrepreneurship in each of those areas?
They have different roles to play in the innovation ecosphere. If you’re at a university, you should absolutely be working on stuff that’s 20 years out. If you’re at a start-up and you’re working on stuff that’s 20 years out, that’s not going to make your investors very happy. And the government: it’s there to enable and to put a level playing field in place—rule of law, one set of rules for all people, policies that make venture capital possible. Government also has a role to play in areas affecting national security. Google might be curing cancer, but I don’t think they’re going to suddenly start putting up money to make sure our defenses are strong.
Math and science, technology, entrepreneurialism, defense contracting—these are often very male-dominated environments. Are there special issues that women in these areas face?
Like everything else in life, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there are statistics that show women raise less than five percent of the venture capital in the country, so things like that can be daunting. On the other hand, if you’re in a room where you stand out, people remember you. You have to take the good about it and ignore the other stuff, because the world will catch up.
Are some countries better than other countries at sponsoring entrepreneurship? Is it an American specialty?
I think the U.S. has led the world in entrepreneurship. I’m a naturalized American citizen, so I like to say I’m American by choice, not by accident. I’m so glad my parents brought me over here when I was a child, because it really is a country that tells you anything’s possible, that you can go out and do it. Starting a company right out of grad school and turning it into the premier robotics company has been literally a dream come true to me. But I think other countries are seeing how it’s done, and that’s a good thing for the world, because entrepreneurs create jobs, create industries. Competition can stimulate further development and move the world forward faster.
Is robotics becoming increasingly globalized?
Robotics is increasingly globalized, but some of that’s not for good reasons. In the space that I’m working in now, in drones, there’ve been excessive regulations in place [in the United States], and that’s helped drive away an industry that we moved on first, through U.S. military investments. [Misguided Federal Aviation Administration regulations have] pushed [the drone industry] over to Europe, Canada, and other places. So there can be a downside to government, too. [It’s important to] make sure that, even while keeping people safe, regulations help American industry rather than hurt it.
I just see so much potential in flying robots, because they avoid so many of the issues you have on the ground, and I think we’re going to go further faster with them. If you look around, wherever you are, you have free space [in the air]. By using drones, we get to cheat a little—not have to do as much obstacle avoidance, detection, categorization, and things like that, because there’s less stuff around [than on the ground]. And the same is true outdoors: you don’t have roads, pedestrians, cyclists; you don’t have trees or rivers; there’s this corridor above the treetops that is just waiting to be made use of by drones.
Old science fiction used to be filled with flying cars, jetpacks, and things like that. Will those eventually take advantage of the space you’re talking about, or will it be just drones?
I believe that the technologies will come. We already have a lot of technologies in ground robots to sense and avoid things. I want to bring some of those technologies to the flying robot space. I think we can disambiguate the airspace; I see no reason why drones can’t share the airspace with man.
How will people be safe in a world in which drone technology has proliferated and drones become incredibly easy to purchase and operate?
A terrorist could buy a drone today and start planning an attack with it, and I think the only way we’re actually going to catch that is with human intelligence. Terrorists aren’t going to get drones from a company building them for commercial reasons; they’re going to go to the hobby store and buy the ones that are already freely available, if they want to pack them with explosives. I think it’s a challenge. But you can do the same with a car, and you don’t say, “Well, we shouldn’t sell cars because you can use them in a suicide attack.” All we have to do is figure out who’s going to be doing it and try to stop it.
You like the idea of a world full of robots, and a lot of people would agree if they helped them do things. But does that world full of robots have as many jobs for ordinary humans?
Robots have been in place in factories for decades now, and jobs have changed, but there’re still people in factories. Maybe there are fewer, but we’re able to produce more. If robots happen to make things more efficient, you want to be the place that has them. You can’t stop technology; the world’s going to continue to move forward. I would love to see [technological productivity] change the social contract and how people think of a full workweek—as four days of work or, later on, even three days—because there could be more quality time that people spend with their families.
Did the Roomba’s making people comfortable with the idea of robots in their homes have a cultural significance beyond the economics?
I believe it did. When we first asked people if they wanted a vacuuming robot, they imagined the Terminator standing behind a vacuum and pushing it around. We asked mostly women, and they tend to be very practical: “Where would I put that? It doesn’t fit in my closet.” When we showed them the Roomba, it was like, “Oh yeah, I can imagine having that in my home.” It goes to the charging station, it’s very small, and it just does the job. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback.
Are we going to see robots in the future that are humanoid, androids like the ones in science fiction?
There are seven billion people in the world, and almost all of them are very good at being people. We’re not trying to duplicate people. We’re trying to help them; make them more efficient, better at their jobs; empower them to do more with robotic technology.
How is robotics related to artificial intelligence?
You need artificial intelligence on robots, but you can have artificial intelligence purely in a disembodied state, on, say, a computer system. My belief is that the artificial intelligence in robots is going to go down a different path, one that becomes more animal-like or human-like, whereas the stuff on a computer is not competing with human intelligence; it’s an adjunct to it. I think people get very confused by the language that’s used by people working on artificial intelligence. They say, “It’s like a brain.” But it’s not. It’s totally a machine; it’s an algorithm. When people say things like, “Ai’s the worst existential threat that exists for humans,” I don’t see it. There’s nothing that I’ve seen right at this moment that I’m worried about being a threat to humans.
Do you worry about Skynet and Terminators?
No, because I haven’t seen any technology that makes me worry about it. If I did, sure, I’d be worried. The problem with worrying about everything is that it takes mind share away from things that we really should be worried about, like global warming, genocide, fundamentalism, biotech weapons, and so forth. These are real concerns.
In the early 2000s, Bill Joy [then chief scientist at Sun Microsystems] wrote articles about how biotech, nanotech, and robotics were going to kill the world. We’d get calls from The Wall Street Journal, and they’d say, “What kind of evil robots are you making there?” And we’d be like, “No, it’s a vacuum. I swear, it’s a vacuum.”
You like robots and want to see a world full of them. Are there some people who have the opposite feeling, who naturally fear or loathe them?
Yes, but those same people potentially had a natural fear and loathing of computer systems, and some might still. But once you have one on your desktop, once you have a Roomba in your home, you change your mind. You see what it’s going to do for you. Once robots are delivering your packages in 30 minutes rather than you having to wait a whole day, I think people will start to see them as useful devices rather than world-ending devices.
Some people talk about the end of innovation or “the great stagnation.” Do you think the truly life-changing innovations have already occurred?
Whoever said that does not study their history. Innovative people will [always] be able to take things from different fields and put them together and come up with something completely new.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
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