Maid for the future

  • Article by: KAREN YOUSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 6, 2009 - 4:55 PM

With spring comes the urge to spiff up. Are we any closer to the day when we can go enjoy ourselves while the robot cleans house?

Photo: Paul Carbo, Special to the Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

I just bought my first robot and we're getting along fabulously.

It backs off its little dock to an electronic fanfare -- da-da-da-daaa -- spins around and takes off cleaning the dining room.

Meanwhile, I sit in a sunny spot and think about spring cleaning -- that particular form of cabin fever that takes hold every year when the sun climbs in the sky, magnifying winter's grime and kindling a strong desire to clean. Down through time, it meant windows were thrown open, and women -- always women -- scrubbed the floors, washed the windows and beat rugs on the clothesline within an inch of their lives.

The robot gently bounces along the wall while little helicopter-style brushes scoop up the dust bunnies along the mopboard.

This robot is one busy body. Actually, no "body" is involved -- it's a gray-and-black disk (think pizza pan on steroids) that moves like it has a mind of its own. This machine is far smarter and cooler than the old vacuum that now stands like a dolt in the closet.

It bumps into a table leg and swirls around it, scoots over to the next leg. Repeat.

We don't recognize it now, but someday we'll look back and see this as the start of robots benefiting humankind, as science-fiction author Isaac Asimov envisioned. Wasn't it Bill Gates who said that robotics is where computers were 30 years ago? So this vacuum criss-crossing my floor, the first practical application of robotics for the home, is like the old brick-size mobile phone.

The robot motors into the kitchen, sweeping up crumbs and a parsley leaf, then proceeds to the living room. Going up and over area rugs, the Little Guy, as I call him, transitions smoothly from wood floor to high pile -- no worries about that fringe on the Oriental rug. Under the stuffed chair and into the corner, along the fireplace, he runs back and forth over the entry mat, getting up the sand and grit.

• • •

The term robot, coined in the 1920s, comes from the Czech word for menial forced labor. That's what endless vacuuming is, day after day. My particular robot, the Roomba, was rolled out by the iRobot company in 2002. I waited until the fifth generation, the Roomba 550, so they could work out the "bugs," and I'd spend less than $300.

A blue light flashes on top of the Little Guy and he suddenly starts spinning. The robot has a dirt sensor; it'll circle a spot until it's clean. It knows where the dog has been. Blue light flashing, it spins about, sucking up dog hair. The dog, who on first encounter was all sniffing and fancy dancing, now simply gets out of the way, eyeing the new darling in the house with irritation.

The first time the Little Guy worked, my son and husband stood transfixed in the middle of the room as it scuttled back and forth. When it approached the stairs down to the family room, I said, "Don't worry, it won't go down." I knew about the infrared device -- the cliff sensor -- that would keep it safe. Still, my husband rushed forward protectively, arms extended, ready to scoop it up as he would a child, but the robot reversed direction.

Robots, unlike anything else created by humans, have the potential to become like family members, friends or co-workers. It's endearing to watch the Little Guy's tireless determination to get the job done. He's working when I walk the dog, and still working when I come back. I leave to buy groceries and he's just finishing up when I return. He never slows down, complains or argues about what's good enough -- unlike the teenaged help in my house.

The robot gets stuck. Knocking about behind the sofa, he can't find his way out. He thinks the sofa's skirt is a wall. I retrieve him and off he charges to clean around the piano. Next time I'll adjust the skirt so he won't get stuck.

Experts say that robotics for the home will come in stages. Many homes already have the first-stage robotics, or smart machines: the dishwasher that cleans when you want it to, the coffeemaker with fresh coffee waiting for you in the morning, the thermostat that adjusts itself morning and night.

The second stage, the individual-tasked robot, completes a more complicated task without human intervention. The Roomba, cleaning every day at a set time, is a good example.

A third-stage robot equipped with video, camera and voice will be like a computer on wheels. It will come and go on command, show you at work what's happening at home. It could, for instance, catch the dog sleeping on the bed and broadcast your scolding.

The fourth stage will be the robots we might recognize from books, movies and TV. Fully involved with the environment and interacting with humans, it likely will be human in appearance -- somewhere between Rosie, the maid in "The Jetsons," and Data, the robot of "Star Trek" fame.

• • •

Scooting back to dock, the Little Guy "notices" the hallway, turns and takes off, determined to tackle the bathroom and bedrooms. I gently stop him. That's for later; your battery charge won't last that long, fella. I set up the virtual wall (a portable 3-inch stand that sends out a signal so the robot won't go there). It can be switched to "lighthouse" mode to guide him home when he's done.

It can be frustrating to watch the robot work because it doesn't vacuum like I do. It goes this way and that, round and round, over the same area repeatedly. But I've learned to trust. Read a book, run an errand or go online and leave the floors to him. They'll be clean.

He sings his all-done fanfare, da-da-da-da-dee-dum, as he softly docks and begins recharging to be ready for next time.

I get up to clean the robot. (It's just a second-stage robot after all; I still have to do some work.) I tip him upside down over the wastebasket and pull out the dirt bin. Out falls dust, dirt, sand, grit, dog hair, leaf litter and loose change. It's tedious to clean the separate bushes and wipe him down, but he'll be cleaning floors tomorrow; I won't.

Now if I could only get a robot that stands upright, with arms and legs. You know, the one named Jeeves, who throws open the windows, washes walls and windows, pulls out the rugs, cleans the bathroom and fixes a nice martini.

For now, I just go to the closet and get that dolt of a vacuum. I can use it to clean the steps.

Karen Youso • 612-673-4407

  • related content

  • No Rosie

  • Roomba


    When: Season premiere 9 p.m. today.

    Where: FX

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


question of the day

Poll: What's your favorite cream pie?

Weekly Question





Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters