- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Helen Greiner, as a mathematically gifted 11-year-old, watched the original “Star Wars” movie and dreamed of someday creating a robot like the heroic R2-D2.

After enduring plenty of lean years chasing that elusive vision as a co-founder of IRobot Corp., Miss Greiner now can boast a product that whirs and chirps much like the character she calls her “personal hero.”

The Roomba vacuum cleaner may be incapable of fixing an X-wing fighter like Luke Skywalker’s trusty droid, but about 1.2 million of the disc-shaped robotic housekeepers have been sold in 25 countries in the past 2 years.

For Miss Greiner, 37, the success of the Roomba and of IRobot’s military machines validates the transformation of robots from the stuff of fantasy to practical tools.

“I think in the old days, robots had a perception of being kind of scary, and more science fiction than science fact,” Miss Greiner said. “These robots are on a mission, and so are we: to bring robots into the mainstream. … We can make robots do a better job than humans in some cases.”

With more than 200 employees, IRobot is the world’s largest firm solely devoted to robotics, but achieving that distinction did not come easily.

Miss Greiner spent long hours in the machine shop after IRobot’s founding in 1990, struggling to create practical robots under continual threat of losing the financing that has kept the company going. Miss Greiner had lucrative offers to go elsewhere, but stuck with IRobot.

“Just imagine going 6 years, and having lots of opportunities thrown your way, and saying, ‘Oh, actually I’m rather determined to make this particular activity work,’ ” said company co-founder Colin Angle, who met Miss Greiner when both were freshmen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mr. Angle, chief executive of the suburban Boston company, said his business partner’s success stems as much from risk-taking and persistence as from technical expertise and management skills.

“She’s the type of person who will say, ‘What the heck? Why not? Let’s go try this. Let’s go start a company. Let’s go snowboarding. Let’s go play paintball.’ ”

IRobot’s chief military robot, a track-wheeled rover called the PackBot, has been on thousands of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan to disarm roadside bombs by remote control and to search caves and buildings.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of her work, Miss Greiner said, is receiving postcards from U.S. soldiers in Iraq who feel safer because of the 150 PackBots the military has deployed.

Miss Greiner stresses the PackBot’s defensive role, but technologies that IRobot and other defense contractors are developing are expected to lead to front-line robots — from unarmed reconnaissance rovers that lead soldiers into buildings and help direct gunfire, to armed and autonomous robots that do the shooting themselves.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense consulting group in Alexandria, said he expects robots to be effective battlefield killers by the end of the next decade.

Such prospects have raised ethics concerns, and run counter to a robots-should-not-harm-humans principle that classic science-fiction author Isaac Asimov outlined in his 1950 anthology, “I, Robot” — the namesake of Miss Greiner’s company.

Miss Greiner has said that robots should not be empowered to decide on their own whether to take a human life.

Miss Greiner was born in London but grew up on New York’s Long Island as the daughter of a businessman and nursery school teacher.

She enrolled at MIT with a “vision” of exploring robotics, she said, going on to earn a master’s degree in computer science at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab while working on satellites at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

IRobot’s first product, a six-legged walking device called Genghis, was designed as a tool for robotics researchers.

About six years later, IRobot introduced its first successful military products. Then came the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

More robotic household items have potential. The United Nations reported last year that 4.1 million domestic robots — from vacuum cleaners to pool cleaners — are projected to be in use worldwide by the end of 2007.

“I think the question will not be, ‘Will you have a robot in your home?’ but ‘How many robots will you have in your home?’ ” Miss Greiner said.

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