It’s tempting when talking about robots to jump directly to the singularity, or to stop off somewhere in between like Wired did recently, asking, “When Robots Take All the Work, What’ll Be Left for Us to Do?” Without a doubt our close relationship with machines has implications that extend from employment to mental and physical health to combat. One company that’s at the forefront of a variety of robotic applications is Massachusetts-based iRobot, which makes robots for home, defense and commercial applications, robots that occupy that sweet spot just shy of taking our jobs and taking over the world: helping us with jobs that are boring, dangerous or otherwise undesirable. One of their products that’s breaking new ground in the home cleaning department is the Scooba 450 ($600), a hard floor-scrubbing robot. With little threat of a Decepticon-like takeover here (“Oh, you want to do a really thorough scrubbing?”) we got our hands on one to do some cleaning.
iRobot was founded in 1990 by roboticists from MIT; today it trades stock on NASDAQ, collects nearly $500 million in revenue and employs 500 people at offices in Massachusetts, California, the UK, China and Hong Kong. More than just “that cleaning robot company”, iRobot is deeply involved in the robotics community, from R&D to encouraging education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) to offering resources for third-party developers. Their robots helped search through rubble after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, assisted U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and to monitored the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. At the core of their robots’ functionality is varying degrees of intelligent navigation (more complex for harder tasks), cloud robotics (off-board computing for the same) and manipulation, whether to clean pools or to dispose of a bomb.
The Scooba 450 is their newest product, which launched this year as an update to earlier versions that came out in 2005 and 2011. It’s the only robot on the market that scrubs floors. (There is, furthermore, very little competition in the robot vacuum market aside from Neato and the forthcoming Dyson 360 Eye.) The bot is 14.4 inches in diameter, 3.6 inches tall and weighs 8.3 pounds, so roughly the size of a small dog. Out of the box, it’s extremely intuitive to use. Just plug it in to charge, fill the tank with water or a combination of water and cleaning solution — use iRobot’s or you’ll void the warranty — power on, select a room size of 150 or 300 square feet and let it rip for a 20- or 40-minute cleaning cycle, respectively. If the room has natural barriers, there’s nothing left for you to do; if it doesn’t, you’ll use the battery-powered Virtual Wall to let the Scooba know where to stop. Once you hit the big start button, the Scooba 450 uses its iAdapt responsive navigation technology to map the room and the progress it’s made to make sure that the entire floor gets a sweep, pre-soak, scrub and squeegee treatment, using fresh water throughout. All very easy and entertaining.
The first time you use the Scooba you’ll want to bake some nachos and crack a foamer.
The first time you use the Scooba you’ll want to bake some nachos and crack a foamer. Watching it work is fascinating: the decisions it makes, the three stages of cleaning, the suspense over whether and how it will get around obstacles. Of course, if you know that iRobot makes bots like the 110 FirstLook that can be tossed through windows to provide situational awareness in combat, it should be obvious that it can get around the legs of a table. It does so capably but not without some hiccups. After leaving the Scooba to its own devices we returned during one cleaning to find it jammed between the legs of a coffee table; likewise on a half-inch wooden lip between common room and foyer. Otherwise, it navigates nimbly and cleans thoroughly, as promised, with the obvious exception of corner areas where a robot 14 inches across just plain can’t fit. For best results, it’s a good idea to just take as much as you can off the floor so the robot can do its business most effectively; if you don’t, it’ll still figure out how to get the place as clean as it can.
The obvious question is whether you need it. Whether we all of us need such a thing, or if we should just clean the old-fashioned way (the robot isn’t much quicker than washing the floors with a mop) or hire somebody to clean ($50 will get your entire apartment cleaned in New York), lest we open the door for robots to take our jobs — and, one day, our spouses. It’s tempting to say no, it’s not worth it, and indeed most of us will not have $600 that we wouldn’t rather spend on a plane ticket or a bike. But if you have the disposable income, it’s a truly fucking remarkable thing to go about your business while a robot scrubs the floor. Moreover, when your pet Scooba has finished, the only clean-up required is to empty the dirty water tank and give it a quick wipe down to remove any particulate accumulated on the scrubbers beneath. So, in answer to the vexing question about what we’ll do when robots take our work — well, the housework, anyway — there are precisely two options: (1) an actual job to pay for the expensive robot, or (2) the goddamn laundry, which the Scooba isn’t walking two blocks to pick up for us.