SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Future zone

PERSONALITY

Future zone

FEW people know that the largest robotic company in the world, iRobot Corporation, in Massachusetts, U.S., is run by a woman named Helen Greiner. She was born in London in 1967. Her father's family was refugees from Hungary. Her parents met and married in the U.K. They immigrated to USA in 1972 when she was five. She grew up in Long Island, and attended the high school there.

As a child, Helen was always jealous of her brother's radio controlled cars and electronic sets. When her parents brought home a computer — and since it wasn't historically gender branded — she claimed it. According to her, "I think it does kids harm not to see what they gravitate towards and make toy selections appropriately. But maybe we build the coolest stuff here because I didn't get it as a child easily."

Helen Greiner became interested in robotics and artificial intelligence when she first saw "Star Wars." She was then 11. Like most children she was fascinated by R2D2. However, to her, he wasn't just a machine. "He had moods, emotions, and, dare I say, his own agenda. This was exciting to me — he was a creature, an artificial creature," she says. She attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an M.S. in Computer Science, both from MIT.

When she was 23, Helen Greiner co-founded iRobot Corporation with her classmate from her college days at MIT, Colin Angle instead of working for a large corporation or going into teaching. Why? She says, "I saw the research in robotics at the labs and universities die off once the funding ran out or when the student left. I found this appalling. Although research was done in universities at first, it was really the companies that gave us the amazing capabilities we have today. I knew robotics would follow the same model. Commercial successes will drive the innovation, leading to more commercial successes."

In the early years, under her management, iRobot Corporation became a world-class research organisation by developing robots that challenged the existing technology in mobility and intelligence.

Today, with a 36 year-old Helen Greiner as its President, iRobot Corporation is delivering robots into consumer, industrial, academic, and military markets. Under her, the company has grown into the largest, most successful, independent robotics company with locations in three states.

On the challenges faced by woman entrepreneurs in the hi-tech field, Ms. Greiner says, "I don't think women must act like Bill Gates to run a company or to be successful. Building teams, solving problems, and juggling many things at once are things that women do very well, and things that corporate executives need to do to be successful. I have actually never perceived chauvinism in my time at MIT or at the company but I realise that this is because of the sacrifices of the generation of women just before me."

Ms. Greiner's robots were deployed in search and rescue operations in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, in archaeology — the one used in the exploration of the Pharaoh's tomb in Egypt shown on the National Geographic Channel in 2003 and for bomb detection and disposal by the U.K. police. Her robots are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan in surveillance and security operations.

Her company has a robot called CoWorker primarily designed to help the elderly and people who are incapacitated. It acts like a personal assistant and will help them find their glasses and fetch their medications apart from other functions. Also, if you wish to see how your relative is doing, you could log in and visit with them anytime, from anywhere. Time magazine named the CoWorker robot "Invention of the Year" in 2001.

iRobot Corporation recently released Roomba — a robot that sweeps and vacuums just about all types of floor surfaces on its own and because of its compact shape can clean under beds, tables and other furniture.

Fortune magazine recently named Helen Greiner one of the top 10 innovators in the U.S. and Ernst and Young named Helen and Colin "Entrepreneurs of the Year" in 2003. She was honoured when the Technology Review magazine, which listed her as the young innovator for the next century, invited to the World Economic Forum as a Global Leader of Tomorrow. Her 15 years of experience in robotic technology includes authoring and co-authoring of several prize winning papers on robotics, work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California and MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Helen's personal vision for the future is to have robots taking on all dangerous jobs that humans do now. Her future plans for her company include placing a robot in every office building and in every home that has a computer. She plans to change our current way of life into a more safe and comfortable one. It is hard to disagree with her for she is already manufacturing the future.