How to Write Robots, from Experience

So, you know I had a major operation in February? I was told that one of the things I would not be able to do for three months was to vacuum the house; that would be way too hard on my healing abdominal muscles and might lead to hernia or trauma or massive bleeding or accidental loss of entrails. (They might not have said that last bit, exactly, but I can extrapolate a disaster just as well as any other anxious person.)

I could, of course, have asked my husband to hoover, but he was already waiting on me hand and foot, and I felt too guilty to insist on clean floors on top of that. I could have employed a cleaning person – but I find it hard to allow even friends in my house. I can’t imagine how much I would have been stressing about being judged if someone I didn’t know was discovering the lint balls behind the bookcases.

So I went a little mad, and I bought myself a robot vacuum cleaner.

One of these, in fact – a Neato Botvac D80. He immediately got a gender and a name – I called him Vlad the Vacuum (because he sucks). I programmed him to start hoovering at 9.30 am every week day. In deference to the day when robots are protesting for their own rights, I decided that he would also have the weekend off. He may be a vacuum cleaner, but if I can help it none of my appliances will have due cause to think they’ve been treated unfairly.

I put his base in the hall, which is the only room where the free wall space isn’t taken up by bookshelves, and then I started him up and followed him around the house watching what he did.

What he’s meant to do, I think, is to map out the walls first and then go back and forth across the room like a lawnmower laying down grass stripes. But that discounts things like the sofa, rugs, table-legs, chair-legs, and in our house swords propped against the wall, harps, wood turning implements, bits of computers awaiting repair, and wires. So many wires. That’s a confusing environment for a machine that can get itself lost under a settee.

I somehow expected him to always start off the same way, to always take the same route around the walls, to slowly refine his map of the house until he was efficiently zipping around in no time. I expected him to behave predictably and logically. I mean that’s what you would expect of a robot, right? It would behave like a machine because it was a machine.

That’s not what happened.

Sometimes he will neatly map out the walls, trundle across the floor with an air of purpose and certainty and get back to his charging station by himself within 50 minutes, dock himself with no trouble and sit there looking smug while I clean his filter.

Sometimes he’ll get stuck. Sometimes he’ll get stuck on something he robotfully took in his stride every day for a month previously. When this happens, sometimes he’ll drain his battery trying to get unstuck. Sometimes he’ll bleep for me and I will unstick him. (It quickly became apparent that he needed me there to rescue him because even if he sailed through the cleaning for weeks while I watched, he would inevitably get stuck if I went out and left him to it.)

Most of the time he will find his charging station when he’s done, but sometimes he’ll roll into the hall looking for it and go straight past it into the toilet, where he will mournfully do the 360 degrees pirouette of confusion and promptly roll into a wall. Sometimes he’ll stop just in front of it while I stand behind him waving my hands and hissing “look! Look! It’s right there!” And then I have to pick him up and carry him to it.

Yesterday he was SO confused, going into rooms and coming straight out again, rolling in circles, rolling into walls etc, it was painful to watch. I found myself groaning in sympathy “Oh, son, go back to bed!” But today he was fine again, as though metaphorical butter wouldn’t melt in his metaphorical mouth.

This experience only confirms in me the suspicion that everything in the universe has personality. I expected my robot to be unchanging, undeviating, a thing that did its task the same way every time and nothing more. But in fact he has good days and bad days and I interact with him the same way I would interact with a puppy or a small child.

I suspect that not only is he more full of personality than I expected, but also that humans are primed to interact with anything that appears to have a mind of its own as though it was an animal, a child or another human. Even robots, as it turns out, are individuals and will need our help as much as we need theirs. I find it a reassuring thought as I continue to cry “oh son! Oh sweetheart!” when my bot gets himself in trouble, and “the flatboy done good” with a fist pump when he has a really good day.

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