Dyson is one of the most innovative tech companies in the UK. While it’s best known for its bagless vacuum cleaners, it’s recently expanded its product range into fans, hairdryers and lighting. And it seems it’s working on a lot more besides.
To discover more about its plans for the future, we sat down with Mike Aldred, electronics category lead, robotics and cordless at Dyson. He revealed how Dyson plans use artificial intelligence and machine learning, shared his thoughts on the current state of the smart home, and explained why the company is like an iceberg.
BT.com: How will machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) improve your products?
Mike Aldred: One of our main areas of focus for AI is to develop a product that can adapt the way it performs to the environment. The product will end up tuning its performance to what the customer wants as opposed to just being the same product that everyone gets.
How would the customer tell it what they want?
Ideally, the customer wouldn’t have to interact with the product, it would just do the right thing. But obviously that’s incredibly difficult to do. An easier way is if the customer gives the device feedback and tells it whether it’s done the right thing. But it can’t be onerous for the customer: it’s a really difficult balance. AI and machine learning is such a vast field, there are a number of strategies we’re looking at.
Are you working on voice control?
We’re exploring many mechanisms. But we’re not just jumping on board with what everyone else thinks is the right way. We look at the most effective way for the customer to interact with the product, and what’s the easiest way for them in terms of effort. Then we concentrate on not just one technology but a roadmap of technologies which lead to the utopian goal. On a robotic vacuum cleaner, that means you couldn’t tell me what it looks like, you never see it, but every single time you come home your floors are absolutely spotless.
Would you make a vacuum cleaner that’s compatible with smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home?
Yes. The connected home is critical for us. We’re looking to turn our entire portfolio into connected products. That’s not just for the sake of connecting them, it’s when we’ve identified a benefit it can offer the consumer. For us, innovation is about applying the engineer’s effort in intelligent, well-targeted ways.
Do you think the internet of things has delivered on its promise to make our homes smarter and our lives easier?
At the moment, it’s technology-driven rather than benefit-driven. There are lots of incredible technologies out there, but could you say our lives are now easier? I would argue no. At the moment we’re taking a step back and asking what functionality does connecting products genuinely provide for the consumer? And what’s the best way of implementing that capability?
Will your new R&D campus in the Cotswolds focus on one particular product category, or work across the whole range?
The key thing is it enables us to expand our product portfolio. Dyson is like an iceberg – the things you can see are just a fraction of what’s going on under the water. We have so many ideas it can be a challenge having the resources to explore them all. And we’ve already outgrown our Malmesbury campus. This new site lets us increase Dyson’s UK footprint tenfold, and gives us the physical space to explore AI, machine learning, connectivity and more besides.
Is there a shortage of people going into STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] careers in the UK?
Definitely. We’re facing a massive shortfall in the number of engineers we’re going to need come 2020. We don’t do enough in schools to promote STEM subjects, or to get enough females into engineering. Kids are clearly excited by it. So how is it lost by the time they come out of university?
Will Dyson ever make an electric car?
We’re developing a lot of enabling technologies. For example, the sensory systems we developed for 360 Eye are not just for that product. We have a robotic roadmap that includes multiple sensor technologies, so the robot can understand where it is in the world and how to interpret the world. Once we’ve got that smorgasbord of technologies, we look at how and where can we apply them in ways which genuinely make a difference. These technologies open up a wide product range. I can’t be specific about which we’re looking at but we’re not just concentrating on robotic vacuum cleaners. We’re developing a high-tech portfolio of enabling technologies which will enable us to move into multiple spaces.