How My Vacuum Cleaner Helped Me Stop Worrying

5 minute read

There is a unique kind of modern-era rage that erupts when you call your credit-card company because you don’t recognize a charge on your bill. Maybe it’s true that your spouse made the charge, but the fact that your spouse wasn’t listening when you asked about it is not the reason for the rage. The rage — and it’s not anger or frustration; it’s rage — comes when you have to have a “conversation” with a machine, or press 585 buttons on your phone in order to reach a real human in Sioux Falls or Bangalore. There is something about talking to a machine that has replaced a person that is simply … enraging.

Unless that machine is my vacuum robot, a.k.a. Roomba. I can talk to my Roomba all day. Our conversations, while short, are always meaningful. For example, I might tell Roomba that it’s the best thing that has ever happened to me, and Roomba will reply, “Error 18, please open the iRobot app for help.”

Spring cleaning season is upon us, which means this is the time of year when my love for Roomba reaches its peak. But this year, frankly, I’m struggling. I’m a patriotic human being who knows that the disappearance of American jobs has less to do with trade deals, as our new President claims, than automation — and so I am supposed to be angry and scared about robots that can do my job. I’m also a lazy human being, however, and am very, very grateful for the cute little round guy with the Gatsby-esque green light who knows not to vacuum over the towel I dropped on the floor the day before yesterday.

Our world is going on autopilot, people, and the sooner you come to grips with that, the sooner you can get comfortable with the fact that Alexa — the personal assistant in Amazon’s Echo speaker that already can make your to-do list, order you a ride from Uber and tell you a joke — is one day going to be your boss. Two researchers at the University of Oxford analyzed 702 occupations in the U.S. and determined that half of them have a high risk of being automated in the next couple of decades. (Realtors, accountants, telemarketers: Don’t panic, but have you considered, say, education or dentistry?) Consulting firm McKinsey conducted research to show that certain professions are headed for a future of near 100% automation. I’m just waiting for “wife and mother” to appear on that McKinsey list, because I’ve got a bag packed and am ready to hop in my driverless car and hit the road. I’m not sure where I’ll eventually end up, just someplace where my family will never find me.

In the meantime, I will continue to explore my relationship with Roomba. What began as an experiment in domestic codependent coexistence between woman and robot has turned into something that resembles love. It’s not just me. I once worked with a woman who was having a secret affair with her Roomba. Every morning she would take Roomba out of the box while her husband took the kids to school, let Roomba clean her apartment floor and then put Roomba back in the box before her husband returned. I never got to the bottom of why she did this, and while I pretended to find her story vaguely disturbing, let’s just say there’s a reason I made her tell it to me so many times.

Apparently researchers at institutions of higher learning are developing robots that can decipher human emotion. When I am replaced by a wife/mother robot in my own household, I’m taking my suitcase straight up to Cambridge to ask the folks at MIT exactly why I fell in love with Roomba. There are other bigger, fancier domestic robots that would seem to deliver more. LG has a new smart refrigerator with a door that turns transparent when you touch it, not to mention the ability (thanks, Alexa!) to give a weather report and order products from Amazon Prime. But I don’t need a refrigerator to buy stuff for me. Call me when it can make veal Marsala.

Until the researchers at MIT have it figured out, I will just have to guess at the logic behind my devotion to Roomba. Maybe I’ve done so much vacuuming in my life that I’m happy to be replaced. Maybe it was the video I saw online of the Roomba that whirred its way around Gauge the puppy lying on the kitchen floor, which I have now watched about 12 times. Or maybe it’s the way Roomba sometimes seems to go around and around in circles, with no clear purpose, looking directionless and confused but always getting the job done in the end. Which makes it seem almost human.

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