Friday, December 29, 2006

The little robot that could

I've never made the mistake of giving Mrs. CaliBlogger a household appliance as a gift, birthday, anniversary, Christmas or otherwise, no wise husband would.

Or at least no wise husband would more than once.


But this year may have changed that rule forever.

The hot ticket gift for Christmas 2006 was....the Roomba.

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."

And while I can outgeek anyone with my enthusiasm for cool new techno-toys, I find some of the reactions to this AI powered Kirby a little disturbing.

"We could have made the Roomba cuter," says Colin Angle, the chief executive officer of iRobot, the Massachusetts firm that makes the Roomba and Scooba as well as a host of military robots. "But we wanted to make sure this product was taken seriously. Rather than put a little bunny on top, we hit the efficacy message over and over again, because it appeals to the busy homemaker who has the job that needs to get done.

"And then she decides it's cute. The epiphany is when adults start talking about it as a helpful member of the family. You get them saying 'I do this and Rosie does that' or 'We can't imagine Rosie not helping us.' "

Indeed, the vast majority of Roombas get named, according to Angle. Kids name 40 percent of them when they're barely out of the box. The naming decision leads to questions of whether a Roomba is male or female. Rosie is the most common name, says Angle, after the robotic maid of "The Jetsons."

But the Roomba does seem kind of male, in an eager-to-please fifth-grader way. Adding to its Y-chromosome cred is that you wish it had a little more memory, and that its meanderings weren't so random. There's even a group on Amazon discussing why so many people view Roombas as male, although one contributor says, "Our Roomba is named Rhonda" and accordingly now sports "ponytail stickers and googly eyes on it to give it more personality." You see, the robot used to freak out the owner's toddler daughter. But after they converted it "into Rhonda -- she fell in love with 'her.' "

Now truly, people (mostly men now that I think about it) have been anthropomorphizing bits of technology for eons.

Cars, WWII fighters, boats have all sported monikers given with either love or chagrin, but this is truly a first for a household item.

And the Roomba could be a fad, but it could also be the first step towards I Robot.

To you, a robot is just a robot. But you haven't worked with them. You don't know them. They're a cleaner, better breed than we are.

Still, I can't help but believe that this little metallic frisbee would have Isaac Azimov smiling like a proud papa.

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