OnQ Blog

Robot Vacuums: High-Tech Helpers or Harbingers of Doom?

Like many, I let robot vacuums into my home. Sure my floors are clean, but am I supporting mechanized Armageddon?

Jun 24, 2013

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Lately, a day doesn’t go by here at Spark in which we don’t hear about robots and robotics. Robots are fun to talk about and explore, but personally, I never had a robot in my life—until now. Inspired by robotics competitions and convinced by my family, I now have two robot vacuums (one for upstairs, one for downstairs). Named XV-11 by Neato Robotics, my cleaning robots have been christened with the friendlier and familiar names R2 and 3PO (hopefully, no explanation needed). 

At the outset, I was skeptical of my robo-helpers. They had to learn the lay of the land, which meant they sometimes got trapped in a labyrinth of table legs and bookcase corners, spinning their wheels helplessly. 

A Pleasant Surprise

After a week, I noticed that they were always in their charging stations when I got home from work. I assumed they sat there all day, and wrote them off as electronic gimmicks I wasted good money on. Then one Saturday, I made a point of watching R2 in its charging station just before its scheduled cleaning time. 

At precisely 11:00 a.m., R2 moved forward, scanned the room with its infrared laser eye, started up with the sound of jet engine, and began its daily pattern: first vacuuming the border of the room(s) while scanning the surroundings five times every second with its eye, creating a 360° map of a room; and then finishing off the room by performing a back-and-forth pattern similar to what you encounter at amusement park or airport security lines. If it encounters an object such as a coffee table leg, R2 will “feel” its way around the leg and then continue its lawn mower pattern.

R2 finished the family room, dining room (with chairs in the way) and kitchen in about an hour and didn’t get trapped or run out of power. I was impressed almost as much as I was proud of my little friend.

Looking Under the Rug

Robots have admittedly made my life easier. Will they soon tend to our every need? Possibly. (Personally, I hope not. I think we’d all get uber-lazy.) The march of (robotic) progress is evident—there are already robots designed to pamper us, caddy our clubs, cure the chronically late and feed our cats.

iRobot, perhaps best known for Roomba robotic vacuums, also offers robotic educational platforms, pool cleaners and gutter cleaners, as well as robots that specialize in security and maritime research and data gathering applications.

Is this the beginning of Robot Armageddon? Maybe, but let’s keep it in perspective. We humans created them. If they get out of hand, we should be able to defeat them. If Robot Armageddon does happen, I’ll keep in mind the words that New York Times best-selling author, television host and robotics engineer Daniel Wilson said in a CNET interview: “Take full advantage of your human adaptability and ingenuity. Move to a rural environment that is not robot friendly, or use demolition techniques to create a hostile environment. Watch your enemy and learn his strengths and weaknesses. Meanwhile, constantly change your own tactics and remain unpredictable. If it comes down to it, go for the sensors.” 

Good advice. 

In the meantime, I’ll appreciate the job R2 and 3PO are doing. But I’ll keep my (non-laser) eyes on them to make sure they’re not up to some malicious mischief

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