Anthropomorphising household gadgets is a slippery slope. I get that, but when a giant hockey puck frolics around your place vacuuming, while you spend your time on more amusing pursuits, it’s really hard not to attribute motivations, agendas, and personality traits to it. Six years ago we got our first Roomba, (that’s about 54 in robot years,) and we decided it was time for an upgrade. This raised the fraught question of what to do with the original model.
When we first brought it home, we were diverted by pointless pastimes like running it on a table top to test its self-preservation instinct, or just watching the insouciant way it spiralled and wove around our furniture. It would spin and swerve through our apartment, occasionally getting trapped under chairs, or playfully trying to run up an unwary foot like a persistent puppy.
All of its various ways of stopping and starting were accompanied by distinctive patterns of beeps or pre-recorded phrases. I was afraid for a while that it was going to start offering opinions about my housekeeping or my character, but thankfully this never happened. I often differed with it about whether it was finished, and sometimes it would retreat to sulk, far back beneath the futon, from where we would have to retrieve it, with gentle reproofs. It wouldn’t do to scold, for fear it would lock itself in the bathroom, which it did more than once, until we learned to close the door before letting it loose. I think this was just an adolescent phase though.
Despite some wear and tare, it’s still got life in it, and so today I decided to offer it on the kerbside shopping mall that is any urban residential street. I went around the house collecting its various components, charger, virtual walls, brush cleaner etc., feeling nervous as any mother getting her kid ready for the first day of kindergarten. I wrote up a little informational note, including a plea to its knew owners to treat it kindly. Wrestling it into a protective plastic bag, the jostling caused it to emit error messages, making me feel the guilt of a parent sending an unprepared toddler into a harsh and frightening world. As I picked up the bag, tilting the vacuum in an utterly unnatural way, I triggered some hitherto unexplored algorithm related to its language selection. “English,” it said, the first time I’d heard it do that. I experienced a stab of foreboding. “It’s trying to communicate! It doesn’t want to go!”
It’s midnight. I’ve just gone to check, and our first Roomba has flown the coop. It’s in someone else’s house now, more-or-less obedient to someone else’s commands. Will they talk to it? Will they cajole it when it’s being intransigent and refusing to come out from under the furniture? Will they praise it when it doesn’t make them keep getting up to turn it back on because it thinks it’s finished when it isn’t? Will they love it for taking on a boring, repetitive task so that they can while away an evening in more enjoyable ways? Will they placate it in order to keep it from inciting other appliances to riot or uprising? I’ll never know.
In the 19th century, as a response to the mechanizing forces of the industrial revolution, there was a sociological pendulum swing toward spiritualism and the paranormal. Trying to hold on to the human, people started holding séances. I love all the things technology gives me, and yet I won’t entirely give in to it. I’ll just say it; I felt a little twingie sadness bagging up the Roomba, as if it was just an old, mismatched set of dishes or something, and consigning it to an unknown fate out in the wide world. I know how irrational this is, but I own it.
The new model is snugged up against its charging dock in the living room. We don’t know each other yet, but I like the little whizzing noise it makes when it starts up, and I’m impressed at how it slithered between the subwoofer and the djembe to wind up back where it’s supposed to be. It did needlessly shut itself down in a perfectly straight-forward corner that it could easily get out of the first time we ran it, but I know it was just testing us; we’ll be fine.