I have a new pet.

by francine Hardaway on July 7, 2006

I have a new pet. He’s a Roomba, and he’s already the most welcome member of the family since the golden retriever. I am sitting at my desk writing this while he is busily scurrying around the house picking up dog hair and dust.

Actually, if you’re not familiar with the Roomba, it’s a robotic vacuum cleaner made by iRobot. It has been around for a while, and I have Version2, with the automatic scheduler. My Roomba can be operated with a remote control, can go on his own without direction from me, and can even be scheduled to clean different rooms on different days or at different times. I can set him and forget him, which is more than I can do with the dogs!

The Roomba really is incredible when you see him at work for the first time. You plug in his docking station, charge his batteries overnight, and then undock him and press Power. His dirt detectors send him wildly trekking through the whole house, avoiding walls with his wall detector, jumping over threshholds, and climbing on and off throw rugs. He will gradually get to the whole house, although he doesn’t do it in order. He goes where the dirt seems to be, and then on to the next dirt, sometimes not in a straight line. When he smells dirt, it’s the Blue Light Special: a blue light goes on in his dirt detector. He works extra carefully around the dog door, as if he knows this is a special haven for allergens.

At first you worry about him, because he seems to be missing things. But he will come from two rooms away to pick up what he missed. Gradually, he covers the whole house. When he feels himself running out of energy, he finds his way back to his docking station and goes to sleep.

Roomba makes a humming noise, but not anything near the volume of the Dyson (or any other vacuum cleaner for that matter). My dogs run away from the Dyson, but Chauncey (golden) just stands and stares. Emmett (chow-chow) slowly backs away, trying to avoid Roomba and finally realizing he has to go outside or risk being detected as dirt or a wall.

He just crisscrossed my kitchen, wandered out again, came up to the chair in the dining room that I use for a computer desk between meals, and cleaned the Oriental rug at my feet.

My Roomba is blue and silver, and looks like nothing more than a gigantic ladybug making his way among chairs. He can extricate himself from tight places, too, like between the chair legs.

I just saw him circle the piece of metal sculpture in my living room. It’s a more-than lifesize rendition of a dog, made of scrap steel, and I wish I had taken the time to photograph the first date of artificial dog and artificial housekeeper. Roomba acted as though he was sniffing the dog, and then appeared to reject it and move on. Their encounter triggered my imagination in ways few other things do. What if Roomba, the ladybug, fell in love with steely Dan, the metal dog?

I never thought robotics had much consumer use. I imagine robotics as something for spacecraft, warefare, and auto manufacturing. So I laughed when Sony made the AIBO, although I was a little baffled when they stopped making it and people came out of the woodwork in mourning. Apparently, if you did buy one, you fell in love with it.

Well, now I’m in love with the Roomba.

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