I, Roomba

The Thinker by Rodin

The future hasn’t worked out quite the way I envisioned it. I’m old enough to have grown up watching The Jetsons, which kind of modeled my thinking on what the future should look like. In the Hanna Barbara cartoon, people flew around in little personal airplanes that didn’t seem to need a runway and they could park on the balcony. No one had cell phones but there was this Skype-like thing at the house and on their putt-putting airplane that provided visual communications. The Jetsons did have a robot, Rosie, who did the cleaning, most of the mothering (Jane had other things to do) and occasionally dispensed pills.

In 2016, I have a smartphone, high-speed Internet and many awesome technologies that the Jetsons never imagined. But some things I do remain doggedly old fashioned. Cleaning is one of them and it usually involves brooms, scouring powder, detergents and washrags. No one has invented Rosie the robot yet, but it’s not hard to imagine that within twenty years she will get invented. Until then we at least we have a Roomba.

A Roomba is no replacement for Rosie. Our Roomba won’t make beds, clean bathtubs, dispense pills or give me any sass. A Roomba simply sweeps floors and carpets. The product, pioneered by iRobot, now has plenty of competition. We acquired our low end 600 series model at the local Costco for $359. It wasn’t my idea. As usual my wife spent months petitioning me for one of them and I kept putting her off. I don’t mind sweeping floors. As retirees we get little enough exercise already. But I don’t have a bad back like my wife and I’ll tend to procrastinate sweeping until it’s noticeable. We do have two cats that constantly leave their playthings on the floor, not to mention their dander and fur. And we have a lot of hardwood floors, which can be a pain to sweep. Roomba to the rescue!

Our Roomba is not a particularly intelligent robot. It doesn’t (at least this model) respond to voice commands. It can’t climb stairs or jump onto sofas, but at least it’s smart enough not to fall down a flight of stairs. It does have a couple of neat tricks. Perhaps the most impressive one is to slide under sofas and other furniture and pick up the stuff underneath that we typically uncover years later when we have a reason to move furniture. And it can usually find its way back to its charging station, which has to be butt up against a wall.

Our Roomba doesn’t listen very well, but it does talk from time to time, only when it needs your attention. You can program it to talk in your favorite language, providing it is English or one of fifteen other popular languages. Mostly though it doesn’t so much talk as whirr, and it’s reasonably loud. You will know when it is on.

It’s also (if you have pets) it is something of an amusement and/or torture device. There are plenty of pet videos you can watch on this theme. One cat watched it with interest from across the room. The other ran under our bed. Running under our bed is not a great idea, because it won’t stop a Roomba, so cats will learn to climb for safety instead. After a couple of days though the Roomba became just another piece of furniture, just one that moves. Cats don’t do much talking but it would give them something to talk about. In a few more days I expect they will sleep through its work cycles.

Our Roomba is not a particularly intelligent robot. It won’t pick up objects off the floor unless very small and lightweight. It seems to move in a haphazard way but there is actually some intelligence built into the way it pings off walls or (if a floor is particularly dirty) moves in swirls. It does a pretty good job of avoiding obstacles. It doesn’t usually tip over the cat’s water bowl and does a decent job of picking up stray cat litter around the litter box. It can be agile. We have carpet runners down the hallways, sometimes with creases in them due to cats madly dashing around, and it usually manages to clean them anyhow. It “steps” onto and off of carpeting pretty well.

But it’s hardly autonomous. It needs our help. It needs us to pick up larger stuff off the floor first. If there is an area we want it to avoid, we have to put down a battery-operated device that essentially says, “stay away!” You have to empty its cleaning tray after each job. And periodically it requires more serious maintenance: brushing its brushes or replacing them as well as cleaning and replacing its filter. Actually though these defects aside it probably does a better job sweeping and vacuuming than I would. I won’t go under furniture and I tend to miss certain spots with the broom.

So it is at best a modest step toward a robotic future but actually quite a useful tool not to mention cat pal/torture device. It’s starting to feel like a member of the family. Perhaps we will give it a name in time. And Rosie will come along one of these days, and I’ll happily let her do those chores I really don’t like, like cleaning toilets and bathtubs. She can even dispense my medications, as I’m already old enough to forget when to take them.

Meanwhile, the Roomba will do.

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