Net.wars - The new Mrs Thing

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 13 June 2003

"I don' do no heavy woik," it said as I took it out of the box. "No stairs, and no windas. I'm delicate." - Wendy abhors nature ...

Wendy M Grossman

Clearly, it had watched too many episodes of The Honeymooners, in one of which an indubitably sturdy maid tells Ralph Kramden just that.

But I should start at the beginning. My mother had a kind, hard-working cleaning lady named Mary Honacek. I have a vacuuming robot called a Roomba.

Here's what happens. You take it out of the box, charge it, and set it in the middle of the floor. You push a button to indicate whether the room is small, medium, or large. (I forgot to RTFM on the details of how you decide this, but let's face it: aren't all English rooms small?) It beeps a few times to say, "I'm listening" - maybe it's Frasier it's been watching? - and starts turning around in circles like a child doing one of those spinning games.

After a few spins, it takes off in one direction or another. And thereafter it wanders around the room huffing to itself. It goes in spirals. It goes in straight lines until it hits something. It manoeuvres its way out of corners by bumping, turning a few degrees, and bumping again until it finds a clear space to move into, kind of like the way my old friend Bill parks his car.

It ambles. It retraces its tracks. It bumps into the same corners and bits of furniture repeatedly. And it never gets any smarter about any of it, and eventually, based on the setting it began with, it decides it's been doing all this long enough, beeps again, and shuts itself down wherever it happens to be, so that if you've left the room you can come back in and trip over it.

It is a vacuuming robot. It is the thing people who hate housework - which is, let's face it, everyone - have always wanted.

The Roomba, I read in the owner's manual, will keep my floor clean "between deep cleanings". I guess they mean between carpet replacements.

There's a lot of stuff in the Roomba manual about how to make your home "Roomba-friendly", with the implied threat that if you don't do this you're going to have to do your own damn vacuuming. Pick up small items from the floor, I read. And it don't do shag carpets. Make sure there aren't areas where the Roomba can get trapped - if it does, it "whimpers" and shuts down.

Stairs you don't have to worry about, because it has sensors to keep itself from falling over the edge. In a house full of computers and routers I guess that counts as well-behaved. I'd complain about how machines are requiring us to conform to their needs, except that all it wants is for me to help it serve me better. Plus, it whimpers, just like a manipulative human. And it's entertaining as it goes round snuffling to itself. Plus, you have that moral glow when you empty the particle bin and discover all the dust and junk it's picked up, just as if you did the work yourself.

Yes: it does work. The floors are noticeably cleaner, and as long as the novelty doesn't wear off, they may even remain so.

When I explained its navigation methods to some friends, they were unimpressed. Incremental rotation is, apparently, the dumbest way to get out of a corner unless you've been dropped in there and it's very, very dark. It's wasteful for it to do all that repetitive wandering around. Why doesn't it pick a path, make a map in its memory, and follow it sensibly? Well ...

... the thing is that in a vacuuming robot, geographical stupidity is actually a pretty clever feature. It's a rare vacuum that's going to abhor everything in one pass. This isn't a human. It can't see where the stubborn spot is that needs several passes to get it clean. But it also doesn't care how many times it goes over the same ground, and each time something will get cleaner.

Besides, unlike a robot you want to interact with - say, an Aibo - you're not waiting for it to get to you so you can do something with it. It's just wandering around doing what it does. You can read a book. If it bothers you, you can stop it any time you want and it won't care about that either. Think of it as a glorified pet rock.

One of the long-running forks in computer science is over whether things like software should be smart or stupid. Stupid software does exactly what you tell it and no more; it is the worst, most childish, petty bureaucrat imaginable. But it has one advantage: it is utterly predictable. Smart software might be able to spot that the next thing you do after finishing an article is email it somewhere, but you can't ever be sure exactly how it's going to act.

The Roomba is a third possibility: stupid but unpredictable, at least at the micro level. At the macro level, we don't care how it does anything, we just want the carpet clean.

Which is where I begin to wonder whether AI, when we eventually have it won't look more different from human intelligence than we think. Maybe the real distinguishing feature of intelligence is not awareness of one's own death, but impatience.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).