Sunday, April 24, 2011

Robot Bonding

When I started my first job, I got a Roomba to celebrate.  I’m usually a pretty frugal guy but I opted for the most expensive model at the time, the iRobot Roomba 610 Professional Series.  It now looks like there is a newer model, the 780, but mine was the top of the line when I got it.  It was around $500.

Now, a Roomba is a vacuuming robot.  Its main purpose is to clean.  But to tell you the truth, I really got it to look at its artificial intelligence.  How smart was it?  How effective was it at cleaning?  If it got stuck underneath a chair, could it get out? 

Was it worth $500?  Probably not, especially considering I could have gotten a Roomba for much cheaper that would have performed adequately.

But watching the damn thing was fun to me.  It would zoom around, lightly bump into walls, and do a decent job at cleaning the place.  And you can’t help but bond with a Roomba.  You start to cheer for it to get out of corners.  And I made the mistake of naming the Roomba.  I gave it the Korean name Meehee. 

My experience was just like this excellent article in The Washington Post, Bots on the Ground.

Ted Bogosh recalls one day in Camp Victory, near Baghdad, when he was a Marine master sergeant running the robot repair shop. 

That day, an explosive ordnance disposal technician walked through his door. The EODs, as they are known, are the people who -- with their robots -- are charged with disabling Iraq's most virulent scourge, the roadside improvised explosive device. In this fellow's hands was a small box. It contained the remains of his robot. He had named it Scooby-Doo. 

"There wasn't a whole lot left of Scooby," Bogosh says. The biggest piece was its 3-by-3-by-4-inch head, containing its video camera. On the side had been painted "its battle list, its track record. This had been a really great robot." 

The veteran explosives technician looming over Bogosh was visibly upset. He insisted he did not want a new robot. He wanted Scooby-Doo back. 

"Sometimes they get a little emotional over it," Bogosh says. "Like having a pet dog. It attacks the IEDs, comes back, and attacks again. It becomes part of the team, gets a name. They get upset when anything happens to one of the team. They identify with the little robot quickly. They count on it a lot in a mission."

I also bonded with Meehee.  I would tell her she had done a good job when she finished cleaning, would laugh when she would chase my girlfriend around the apartment (even though she wasn’t actually playing).  I’d even say hi to her when I got into the apartment.  Am I crazy?  At least a little bit, but it’s built into human nature to anthropomorphize objects.  Now when those objects possess or appear to possess intelligence, all bets are off.

That’s why I was upset when I broke Meehee, similar to the way the explosive ordnance disposal technician was upset when Scooby Doo was blown up.

Here is my journal entry for that day:

Ran Meehee but she threw an error.  Opened her up to see if I could fix her.  She was still under warranty, I think, but I opened her up anyway.  Couldn’t fix her and with regret, I threw her out now that I voided the warranty.  Need to get another vacuum.  Learned 4 things:
  1. Don’t spend a ton of money on one thing.  Meehee was the most expensive thing in my apartment for a long time.  When I get a new computer, that will be the most expensive thing, but I’ll be using it a lot more than a vacuum, so it makes sense.
  2. Stop trying to open things up to fix them.  I can do it for something relatively easy like a computer, but other things I can’t.
  3. Keep it simple.  Didn’t really need a complex vacuum cleaner and now I feel bad for throwing her out.  It’s all wasted energy.
  4. Don’t name things that aren’t people.  I had a sentimental attachment to an object because I named it, which is silly.

Meehee had a pretty good run and I’m sad to see her go.

Still, at the end of the day it’s just a god damn vacuum cleaner so there’s no reason to get so emotional.

I wrote the whole thing, then read it later and added the last sentence.  Meehee was just a goddamn vacuum cleaner, but the line was blurred for me.  I had to force myself to remember that she was just a goddamn vacuum cleaner.  Imagine what it will be like once robots can really interact with humans.  It will be even harder to throw them away once they truly become a part of the family.  What happens when you need an upgrade?

At the end of the day, my memories with Meehee are bittersweet.  I realize that sentence is preposterous, but it’s how I really feel.  Afterwards, I got a $50 vacuum cleaner that does the about the same cleaning job as Meehee.  The difference is that it take 15-20 minutes of my time to clean my apartment instead of 45 minutes to an hour of Meehee’s time.  I come out slightly behind.

Was Meehee a waste of money?  Yes, but I do like supporting iRobot.  In 10-15 years when Roombas are really good at cleaning, when they can walk up and down stairs, and when they can clean themselves, then I’ll get a new Roomba.  I just won’t name it.

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