Friday, June 13, 2014

I, Robot: iRobot Roomba

Isaac Asimov
The Three Laws of Robotics (often shortened to The Three Laws or Three Laws) are a set of rules devised by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The rules were introduced in his 1942 short story "Runaround", although they had been foreshadowed in a few earlier stories. The Three Laws are:

1.      A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2.      A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3.      A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. (Source: Wikipedia)

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I’ll admit I’m a little conflicted about this review. See, if I write a good review and readers click the link to purchase an iRobot Roomba, well, I’ll get about a $25 spiff from the Associate Program for each purchase. If I write a negative review, readers won’t buy and I won’t make money.
A sell-out, I’m not.
Roomba 560 by iRobot

On June 11, 2013, (I know because I checked my purchase history), I bought the iRobot Roomba 560 in an attempt to eliminate the use a traditional vacuum and to simplify my life. Call it a Father's Day gift to myself. See, my then girlfriend has a couple of Roombas. I saw them work and I said, “Hey, I should get one of those.” Although’s retail price for the Roomba 560 is now $399, I’m pretty sure I paid $349 a year ago.
The idea is for this little, disc-shaped, robotic vacuum to pretty much clean without much assistance of a human. We, the humans, program the thing to run out and suck up all the dirt and stuff from the floor, ideally at a time when we’re not home, and then go back to a dock where it charges and awaits for its next programmed order. All we, the humans, supposedly have to do empty the dirt bin after Roomba has finished. Well, Roomba ownership entails a little more than that, like cleaning the brushes occasionally, but that's is allegedly about it.
Well, this human has had a few problems with his Roomba.
After just a few weeks, Roomba would stall in the middle of the floor and it would announce in a didactic female voice, “Error,” and then list some reason.  Typically, the error was the result of  Roomba being stuck on a piece of floor transition wood between rooms. However, when Roomba stopped for no apparent reason, I literally had to disassemble the robot and not just clean the hair and dust from the brushes and the cams, but also to remove the gear boxes and clean the debris there, too. In no time, I became a robot mechanic, which sort of defeated the purpose of saving this human single father time. 
When the Roomba’s maintenance needs exceeded my mechanical skills, I contacted iRobot customer service, which I freely admit was perhaps the most supportive and professional I’ve ever experienced. Ever. The customer service agent, who was polite and empathetic, perhaps even bordering on superfluous, diagnosed the problem with my Roomba 560 as a need for an AeroVac Bin filter upgrade. As accommodating as the customer service agent was, the cost of the upgrade, about $35, was the responsibility of this human.
Roomba worked well with the new component, but after another couple of months, it began simply to stop in the middle of the floor after it had worked only for a few minutes. Roomba noted, “Error. Move Roomba to a new location,” but there was nothing that had impeded Roomba’s movement. By this time, I’d had enough of Roomba and didn’t bother to diagnose the problem. Rather, I re-familiarized myself with my Hoover WindTunnel.

The Single Father’s Roomba 560 Review
Can be programmed to operate at convenient times.
Dirt bin has to be emptied after every use by human.
Customer Service is incredible, perhaps the best in the history of human existence. May be, in fact, supplied by an artificial intelligence.
Brushes and cams have to be cleaned regularly – weekly or more, by human.
Returns to charging base by itself.
AeroVac dust bin has a tendency to fall off requiring  human to play hide and seek to find it.
Side brush does a pretty good job cleaning corners.
Easy for cams, brushes, wheels, and even gear box to become jammed with debris.
Human owner of Roomba must become a proficient robot mechanic.
Frequently, gets hung up on threshold transitions and rugs or get stuck under some furniture.

Recently, I've gone back to Roomba. Time hasn't been a luxury I've enjoyed recently and the thought of spending an hour or two disassembling and cleaning Roomba in exchange for little or no time savings in the future hasn't been a trade I've wanted to make. But, finally, I did take Roomba apart, cleaned the brushes, cams, wheel wells, and used compressed air to blow the dust out of literally everything, and Roomba has worked as promised now for about a week. (Human fingers crossed).
Scene from the Will Smith film, I, Robot, adapted from Asimov's short story collection of the same name
If making me crazy qualifies as harm or injury, well, it appears Roomba has broken the first of Asimov's Three Rules. Since Roomba also doesn’t want to do as it’s instructed, the second rule is also busted, too. Frankly, by its failure to do the things it’s built to do, it has also compromised the third because I’m about to drop it out of my third floor window.
Look, I'm not really a Luddite, but the bottom line is this: I can’t recommend Roomba to single dads or to anyone else.