Robots That Fill an Emotional Vacuum

Consumers have adopted more than 2 million of iRobot's Roombas and taken the little suckers into their hearts.
Consumers have adopted more than 2 million of iRobot's Roombas and taken the little suckers into their hearts. (Courtesy Of Irobot)
By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2006

Comes now the minor miracle of The Week After Christmas, 2006.

These are the days when liberal-arts majors finally crossed the line, falling into an emotional relationship with a real robot. Not one on a movie screen, but one that scoots around their ankles, scaring the bejesus out of their cats -- isn't that fun to watch -- while actually being quite useful.

This week, women all over America -- and not a few men -- are cooing and doting over their surprise hit Christmas present. They swoon when it hides under the couch and plays peekaboo. When it gets tired and finds its way back to its nest, sings a little song and then settles into a nap, its little power button pulsing like a beating heart, on, off, on, off, they swear they can hear it breathe.

It's as cute as E.T., as devoted as R2D2, more practical than a robotic dog and cheaper than some iPods.

It's a Roomba, an artificially intelligent floor-vacuuming 'bot, and this is the year mountains of them rumbled off the shelves not just of nerdistans like the Sharper Image and Brookstone, but of mainstream players like Costco, Sears and Target. They landed on the floors not just of innovators and early adopters, as in the previous four years, but the hip majority targeted by "Saturday Night Live."

More than 2 million of the machines, which range in price from about $150 to $330, have been sold. The day after Christmas, a Roomba was among the top 20 items in Amazon.com's vast home-and-garden section, ahead of the top-selling iron, the top-selling blender, the top-selling coffeemaker and the top-selling George Foreman grill. In Housewares, different models were Nos. 1, 6 and 8, ahead of all the other vacuum cleaners, including the DustBusters.

"The Roomba is wonderful!" says Kazuko Price, a family practice physician in Alexandria who says her patients include a lot of "kids who come in and mess up." Her robot cleans four rooms. "Well, sometimes he's dumb. He keeps going back to the same place. I kick him." She's named hers Robert.

Why does she thinks it's a boy? "Because I'm a she, that's why. I like guys."

On Epinions.com, a reviewer named "Leisure Larry" writes: "This was the first household item ever I gave my wife as a Christmas present. . . . I don't think many husbands would even dare and fewer would survive giving a vacuum cleaner as a Christmas present. It worked . . . she was thrilled!!"

She's named it Karlson.

These people are onto something. The wonder is only marginally about dust bunnies. It's about robot love.

The cultural moment when the walls between human and artificially intelligent machine began to tumble arguably came a couple of years ago when an "SNL" skit imagined a product called the Woomba, "the first fully automated completely robotic feminine hygiene product." That moment can now be revisited on YouTube.


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