I’m not planning on writing about every moment of EtCon; there are plenty of people doing that already, and it’s hard enough for me to concentrate on what speakers are saying without the burden of massaging that into something publishable. I probably won’t even expand on the atmosphere to any great extent. Suffice it to say that hanging out with a gaggle of London friends in a place full of clever folks discussing ideas and projects is a lovely holiday.
That said, the second keynote speech today was a surprising experience. Helen Greiner, co-founder and president of iRobot was here to talk about her company’s products. I usually try and steer clear of sessions that could be thinly veiled sales pitches, but there was no choice for the keynote, and hey, Roombas are cute! It was fun, as Greiner enthused about the product, and while it seemed odd to be listening to a talk about vacuum cleaners, everyone on IRC was having a good time, and a fair few were lusting after the little critters.
Then Greiner moved on, with equal enthusiasm, to iRobot’s other product, PackBot, a military robot. A fun video showed the plucky blighter falling off buildings and being thrown through windows, only to pick itself up and zip off. Hurrah! Laugh! Cheer! But within minutes the tone changed.
IRC was full of people checking themselves as we realised we were cheering hardware being sent into foreign countries, hardware that’s only a step away from weaponry. We weren’t watching cute domestic toys any more, but military maneouvres. We’d gone from a conference for vacuum cleaner salesman to a meeting of the arms trade, and it wasn’t a pleasant feeling. What was this doing as a keynote? Is this how O’Reilly wants technology to be used?
Lots of online chatter culminated in Kevin Burton asking a question about iRobot’s ethics, although he focused on whether the company would sell PackBots to third world countries or law enforcement, which rather missed the point for me. If you’re going to protest about military uses, it shouldn’t matter at this level whether it’s “us” or “them” putting them to use. Either way, I’ve rarely seen a company prime so many eager customers and then lose them in such a short space of time. If you’ve ever been slightly concerned about where you put your money, don’t get a Roomba.