My First Robot.


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The ILIFE V5s is about the size of a cherry pie and it is twice as sweet. You put it on the floor, press a button that is marked “CLEAN,” and it coasts busily off to hoover or mop in aimless circuits until its batteries are depleted. It will indeed mop ‘til it drops. Like its great-grandfather, Henry the Hoover, the ILIFE greets you with a childlike cheerfulness that will hoover up your heart. Henry had a bright smile painted on to his red, tin-can face. The ILIFE has two twinkling blue lights for eyes and a front jaw that curves like the Grim Reaper’s scythe to produce a smile of its own. It also has two rotating mandibles that frisk hair and dust into the slurping mouth on its underside.

The ILIFE is reasonably dexterous and it can, for example, weave amongst the flimsy plastic clothes horses in my apartment without knocking them over. Like a cat, it can move freely around if I leave all of the doors open for it. Sometimes it gets snagged on wires, and it would be helpful if there was an alarm to summon you whenever this occurs. This model does not come with the ability to programme a “virtual wall,” to impose off-limits areas, though there is a remote control that you can use to change the robot’s course from afar if you do not have the time to physically reach it. My ILIFE likewise lacks the room-mapping technology of its intellectual superiors at the top end of the market.

I have found that people typically place the ILIFE in the centre of any given room, activate it, watch it go once around the floorspace, and then declaim it to be substandard. Look at all the dust that it has missed! A conventional, human-operated vacuum cleaner would have done a much more thorough job! This is to misunderstand how the robot should be deployed. It is meant to be left to itself, to crisscross the floor a hundred times, hoovering with an obsessiveness that would be insane in a human. Eventually it will disturb and loosen every crumb and hair, and then run them over with its vacuum.

It is the same with the ILIFE’s mopping. In reality, this is more wiping than mopping, with a flannel attachment being constantly moistened by the dripping water tank. The ILIFE will drive over a muddy bootprint once and no dirt will appear to yield. Yet after the robot has revisited the bootprint another twenty times, there will be no bootprint left.

The point of the ILIFE is that it is meant to get on with it unsupervised, fading into a background hum, rather like the workings of your own liver. The literature that comes with the robot maintains that you can even programme it to wake up and clean your home when you are not there. Unfortunately, my apartment is now so clean that I would have no means of ascertaining whether or not the ILIFE had been working when I got home.

You might protest that the ILIFE cannot be “my first robot” because there are all manner of robots that are, say, cleaning my hard drive at the moment without my oversight. The ILIFE is nevertheless the first tool in my possession with its own physical body that can move about, completing tasks for me, with a degree of working independence. The enthusiasm with which I am writing about this contraption might make you suspect that I am somehow in cahoots with the manufacturers and that this is an “advertorial.” Not so: they are scarcely this desperate for publicity. Rather, I am writing this article because I want to reflect upon what is next for the technology. The ILIFE feels like the starting point for a long and as yet mostly unwritten story.

Is it not in the urgent interests of individual businesses to invest in this technology? The latest Roomba robot, which can map rooms and return to its charger unsupervised, costs roughly the same as what a human would be paid to clean a company’s offices over the course of a month. Within months, therefore, huge savings will be quickly recouped. The electricity needed to recharge the robot is a small fee compared to the costs and administrative palaver that occur whenever a human cleaner is late, or sick, or on holiday.

The robot needs to have its stomach emptied and, of course, it has to be cleaned itself. Floorspaces have to be usually prepared to help out the robot. On balance, an employer might currently decide this to be too troublesome or onerous. Best stick with a human worker who is not confined to floor level. The human can wipe desks, shelves, windows and mirrors, as well as emptying the bins and taking the initiative in all sorts of subtle ways to make the office look more cheerful.

Here, however, the robots are hardly in abeyance. The self-driving technology inside my ILIFE has been implanted into floor scrubbers and these vehicles are already being unleashed upon shopping centres and airports. If you can find a four-leafed clover, you will have spotted one of these robots by now. Fraunhofer IPA’s Care-O-bot 3, the Rolls-Royce of robotic cleaners, has a functioning arm expressly for emptying dustbins.

Floorbound robots will soon surely leave their two-dimensional world, by climbing walls with suction pads, as window-cleaning robots do, in order to attack desks and shelves. Or instead, every surface in an office could have its own discreet robot, which is programmed to appear like a mouse out of its hole whenever the surface needs a clean. But we are only describing robots that are designed to service existing interiors. The Sumitomo Building in the city of Osaka has been adapted so that its elevators can interact with its cleaning robots, allowing the robots to switch floors without on-the-spot human help. The office buildings of the future could be configured to further assist these robots by, for instance, expelling the contents of their dustbins (“thar she blows!”) so that the robots do not need to empty them using an expensive arm attachment. Doors could open for the robots; desks could lower to floor level to be hoovered.

There is henceforth a broad portfolio of technology that is ready for mass commercial production and a vast market of businesses that could drastically reduce their costs by purchasing this technology. Imagine if Carillion had brought in cleaning robots several years ago; the associated savings on labour costs could have been the single missing straw that kept the camel standing. The ultimate problem is that most employers are not yet conscious of the technology or receptive to the implications of using it. The market will only be there once people have woken up to it.

Tech-savvy readers might think it odd that I have written a review of the kind of robot that has been actually around, in some form or another, since 2002. There were Roombas cleaning floors before Tony Blair had started the Iraq War. Nonetheless, when I have shown my friends a video on my phone of my first robot, some of them have reacted as though they have unexpectedly found themselves in the middle of a science-fiction movie. Their eyes have goggled.

I even shared this video with my employer and asked her whether we could buy a fleet of cleaning robots. Her response? Well, such a move would be quite impossible. Which of her many superiors would take this decision? Where in the annual departmental budget would the money be freed up from? Who in the command structure would assume responsibility for the robots? Our corporate system is Byzantine and rather like an ant’s nest; a hegemony of important bureaucratic egos has to be in agreement before all of the ants can be reprogrammed to factor in even the tiniest of new procedures. So we might as well still be in 2002 on this front.

I sense that other corporations around the world will be nimbler than my own in adapting to the new technology and being open to its opportunities. Generally speaking, though, our moral is this: the future is so distant not because the technology is in its infancy – indeed, in practical respects the cleaning robot could not be any more invented – but because we do not yet have the imagination, in the mass, to picture what the future looks like. Ironically, it is the humans who are here being robotic. We are mechanically repeating our established behaviours, the very mirror image of the robot that is currently crisscrossing my floorboards. The robots are not “taking over” – instead, we are happier to operate on their level.