Better Living Through Robotics?

Friday, January 2, AD 2009

In direct defiance of the advice I gave last month, I gave my wife a vacuum cleaner for our 26th wedding anniversary, and I am not eating from a doggie dish.  Of course, being a veteran husband, I took the elementary precaution of asking her first if she would like such a gift, and only proceeded after being given the spousal green light.

The vacuum cleaner in question is a robotic vacuum cleaner, a Roomba 560.  I have had my eyes on this branch of technological development since they first came out.  However, I held off from purchasing one due to cost and a belief that the technology and hardware were not  sufficiently developed to make the purchase a wise one.  This year the cost had decreased and the technology and hardware had progressed to the point where I decided that, with my wife’s approval,  a robot vacuum cleaner might be worth the money.

In this century one safe prediction is that most mundane products will have cyber intelligence.  I doubt if I will live to see anything approaching Rosie from the Jetsons, but it would surprise me if my children do not.  This will have a big impact on our culture, for good and ill, something I will explore in future posts.  Here to report on our experiences with the Roomba is a guest posting from my wiser half, Cathy:

I researched robotic vacuums on one of the consumer review sites, and learned that the most highly-thought-of models were the Roomba 510 and its upgraded cousins, the 530 and 560.  We decided to purchase our Roomba at Best Buy, because of an 18-month no-interest financing promotion (the Roomba by itself wasn’t quite enough to qualify, but the additional unrelated stuff we planned to purchase on the same visit easily bumped the total purchase amount up high enough).  Most Best Buys apparently have either the Roomba 530 or 560 in-store, but not both (although both are available via their website); the Best Buy we shopped at had the 560, so that’s what we brought home.

Everything one needs to get started is all in one light-to carry box, including a spare filter, a brush-cleaning tool, a recharger “Home Base,” and 2 “Lighthouse/Virtual Wall” gadgets — except for batteries for the “Virtual Walls” (we sent one of the kids to the supermarket on the next block to buy some — on New Year’s Day, yet!).  We found an unobstructed outlet near the floor in one of the rooms we wanted to vacuum, plugged in the “Home Base,” and plugged the Roomba into it for its initial charge (after listening to its little self-contained audio demo).  You’re supposed to leave it recharging overnight the first time; however, our Roomba indicated that it was ready to use after just a couple of hours. 

We tried it in our kitchen and dining room (AKA “main computer area,” where Don blogs from) for our maiden robo-vacuuming experiment.  We did take the precaution of lifting everything loose off the floor, except the Ethernet cable for the computers; since this first time was so interesting to watch, it was no trouble to have someone lift the cable out of the way, and it was pretty good about “escaping” when it did get on top of that cord.  (In future, though, I’d want to keep the cord secured above the Roomba, or use a “virtual wall” to keep it away from the Ethernet cable.)  Our floor had a lotof dust and pet hair on it, so we had to empty the dust compartment and clean the brushes halfway through.  We also used a “virtual wall” at the doorway between the dining room and living room, and another one at the kneehole opening of one of the computer desks; both of those gadgets worked beautifully.

All the humans in our family were quite impressed with the Roomba’s performance.  (Our dog is a bit frightened of it, though; perhaps she thinks we’ve got a strange new “robopet” in the house?)  With regular use (which should be eminently doable, since this is much easier to use than a traditional vacuum cleaner), the floor should stay clean enough that the mid-job cleaning breaks will no longer be needed.  Now, if only the Roomba could do stairs, too!

8 Responses to Better Living Through Robotics?

  • (Guest comment by Cathy): PS — The janitor at our parish church uses an even larger Roomba (a commercial-grade model?) to vacuum the sanctuary after Mass.

  • While the algorithms to program up a vacuum cleaner like the Roomba aren’t too horribly complicated (tedious, I would imagine, especially if it uses some learning algorithm to help it better fit to your house), I wouldn’t get too excited about full-fledged robots in our households. Something like Rosie from the Jetsons will never really happen unless there’s a huge revolution in computers that we simply can’t imagine right now.

    Being a theoretical computer scientist, I don’t work very much the A.I. field, though my research does pull heavily from computational learning theory. But I have read enough A.I. literature to know that we’re nowhere close to building a computer that has anything close to intelligence.

    Hmm. Now I’m half-tempted to write a post on Computer Science and the Soul, talking about one of the key issues of my field and how it affects how I think about our human nature. Any takers?

  • It’s all you Ryan.

    Is that the McClarey house cat taking a ride?

  • nice article. i too just plain like the idea of delegating tasks like vacuum cleaning to a robot. i’m not sure how well it would work in my cluttered apartment, but for a spacious home i’d imagine it would be a great addition to the appliance list. also makes for a good conversion piece when you throw a cocktail party 🙂


  • “Is that the McClarey house cat taking a ride?”

    No, Tito, just an anonymous cat featured in a video on You Tube. Our cowardly dog, aptly named Baby, steered clear of the Roomba.

  • I’m surprised the cat seems to be enjoying the ride.
    Cat bumper cars, anybody?

  • I noticed that too cminor. The way the tail of the cat just drags along behind indicates that the cat is quite comfortable and probably often rides the Roomba.

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