So, Where’s My Robot?

Thoughts on Social Machine Learning

SWMR: Rebecca Grinter

A contribution to the SWMR Series

When Andrea asked me to write a piece for her blog, the first thing I did was ponder the phrase “so where’s my robot?” Of course, what she means is where is my own robot, why do I not yet live with this technology, and as she compellingly argues, not just here, but in her research, one significant problem is the mis-match between human and robotic intelligence.  Specifically, until robots are more intelligent in their ability to interact with people, then the range of things that they will be able to do for people is limited in some fundamentally important ways.

But, the same question can be asked by some people to mean something quite different.  In about 2.5 million homes there is a robot—admittedly a rather limited one, but is that so different than the original computers we owned —the Roomba vacuum cleaner. And Roomba is the first vacuum cleaner for which the phrase “so where’s my robot” can and is uttered. Normally, when we think about vacuum cleaning (do any of us think about it, other than being resentful?) we don’t think about where the cleaner has gone. Typically we know since we’re holding on to it in some way. But Roomba is autonomous, and so it goes where it chooses…

And that makes it fascinating. How many of you have come home to discover that Roomba is not in its dock. So where’s my robot becomes a search for the machine. A voyage of discovery, where might it be, under the bed, caught in some electrical cords or, even worse, having managed to use its bumper to shut a door on itself, trapping it in a closet. And, how many of us would admit to feeling a little bad that the device had gotten caught up and ran out of batteries because it pleaded through a series of beeps for us to come retrieve it. Perhaps not, but I promise you that there are people who do feel bad, and if you think you’re not among them and you don’t own one, I suggest you experience it.

Roomba does more than induce a search and rescue operation in the home. It also inspires other types of behaviour. Perhaps the one that interests me the most is some people dress it up. In fact, enough people do this that there’s a company that makes a business out of selling costumes for Roomba. A business! I try to imagine dressing my upright vacuum, perhaps in a cape, perhaps as Super Vacuum Dirt Buster at Large? But it doesn’t work. By which I mean that it just doesn’t make any sense now does it. But, for some people dressing the Roomba seems like fun, and then watching that costumed appliance cruise the floors of the house, well that is amusing, and it doesn’t seem all together as wrong.

I understand that for some roboticists, the Roomba is not exciting. It is a relatively simple machine, perhaps almost non-robotic. I want to remind them that it is just the beginning, and it is a good beginning. It has turned the experience of robots from being something that one saw in films or read about in books. It is now a lived experience, and one we can learn from. What interests me is not just what robots can do for people, but what people want to do with and potentially even for robots. And above all else, the first time that someone came home and wondered where their robot had gone marks an important change in society, from a time when where the robot was a question of any robot to a time soon coming where it will be a question about a particular robot or a specific function set.

Where’s your robot. It’s coming.

Rebecca Grinter
Associate Professor of Interactive Computing
Georgia Institute of Technology

September 28th, 2009 Posted by | SWMR Guest | no comments

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