We Have Robots


Emily and I have this little game that we play: when we’re out walking around, shopping or whatever, I’ll offer her whatever happens to cross my line of sight, the more ridiculous the better. She says no thanks, or ignores me, repeat as necessary.

If we pass a donut stand, I’ll ask her if she wants a donut. If we pass a muffler repair shop, I’ll ask her if she wants her muffler repaired. And so on, pretty much constantly until we either get home or think of something more interesting to talk about. It’s endless entertainment for me, and only seems to annoy her a little bit.

So last week we were walking through a department store doing this. Would you like a six-piece socket wrench? No, how about a bandsaw? No? Assorted router bits? No? Okay, maybe a robotic vacuum cleaner? And her eyes lit up.

And now we own a Roomba, and she’s spent the last few days carrying the thing from room to room cackling gleefully while it does its thing, and periodically marching into my office to announce “We’ll never need to vacuum again!” Turns out she doesn’t like vacuuming. At all. Proof that you can still learn things about your spouse even after nine years together.

I have to admit it’s pretty slick, and it does work surprisingly well. (Our dog sheds more than I ever would have believed possible: even when you run it in a room that is to all appearance clean, it winds up choked full of Frank fur by the end of its run.)

It’s in no way systematic: it starts out in a neat spiral, but then scoots apparently at random angles around the room, bumping into things and turning around. So your carpet doesn’t have those tidy parallel rows of vacuum-pattern in it; more this schizophrenic collection of diagonals and spirals. (From the next room it sounds disconcertingly like you’re keeping a small blind robot prisoner in a maze: buzz thump turn buzz thump turn buzz buzz thump turn thump turn buzz thump.)

Yet somehow it manages to find its way back to the starting point when it’s done, which should be impossible with all that thumping and turning and bouncing around it does; I’ve spent more time than I care to admit watching it trying to figure out the algorithm. (What I really ought to do is try it twice in the same starting point in the same room, and see if it follows anywhere close to the same path.) It has an infrared sensor which is only used to check for infrared “walls” you can set up to keep it in one room, not for navigation. It has some way of figuring out when it’s about to fall off a step, which we haven’t had the courage to try out yet. And it has a collection of more or less indistinguishable tunes it plays to tell you what it’s doing, which is mostly limited to “cleaning the floor”.

In conclusion, I liked this robot, and I think that anyone who likes robots and hates vacuuming would like it too.