More than just a rotating, beeping robotic vacuum cleaner, Roomba is making me a better person

By Stephanie Reynolds
Chicago Tribune


Roomba is making me a better person.

As far as Christmas presents go, the rotating, beeping robotic vacuum cleaner is — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — right up there with the remote-control flying shark balloon of 2016.

I’ll get a message from him on my phone while I’m at work (Roomba uses the pronouns he and him): “Roomba’s bin is full” or “Roomba’s left wheel is stuck.” And I’ll start thinking of solutions. Maybe someone can go over and free him, poor guy. He’s probably under the love seat. It’s a bit like having a new pet, or like R2-D2 is still getting used to your house.

It's fascinating to watch how Roomba maps a room, figures out a pattern and then deals with every obstacle -- skirting cat food dishes, weaving around chair legs, freeing himself from under the dining room cabinet. Oh, and the robotic vacuum cleaner also cleans your floors. (Stephanie Reynolds/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The idea behind a robotic vacuum cleaner, I’m led to believe, is that you set it up and don’t have to think about vacuuming anymore. Forget that. We’ve spent hours watching Roomba. He cleaned our 1,000-square-foot apartment on Christmas Day four times.

This is going to sound weird, but it’s fascinating to watch how he maps a room, figures out a pattern and then deals with every obstacle — skirting cat food dishes, weaving around chair legs, freeing himself from under the dishes cabinet in the dining room. So many strategies: the wiggle left and right, the patient edging move, the 180-degree twirl. He may just be my role model for 2019.

Also, he has a Cliff Sensor. He’ll zip straight for the stairs, stop cold, turn and edge around a bit looking busy, but then he’ll head right back for the stairs again and stop again. I want to yell, “Danger, Will Robinson!” — it’s scary every time. But Roomba doesn’t hesitate; he puts himself out there. Maybe Muhammad Ali said it best: “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”

On Christmas, my son set up Roomba to turn on at 9 a.m. seven days a week. (Scheduling chores and exercise works for me too!) My husband, Thom, and I went to the movies Saturday afternoon, and on the way out, in the elevator, I was reading my messages (there’s an app for your phone) and said out loud, “Oh, he’s cleaning again.” “Nick must’ve turned him on,” Thom said. The other guy in the elevator asked, “What’s going on?” He came over to look at my phone. We explained all about Roomba; I mean we raved all about Roomba.

Did I mention that Roomba cleans? Our apartment is very clean right now. The floors, I should say, they’re very clean. But we’ve also tidied up a bunch of other things to make Roomba’s life easier. Electrical cords jumbled in a corner have been reorganized. Fraying rug fringe is being removed. Thom even took out the big, old vacuum to help Roomba a bit with the bathroom the first day.

But the second day, after spotting a couple of dog hairs, we opened the door to the bathroom and let Roomba in. He was under the bathtub in no time and started a very laborious new pattern, back and forth over the same spot. His Dirt Detect, I’m shocked to say, had found extra dirt under there.

Some people give a new name to their Roomba (just like a shelter pet, right?), but we stuck with Roomba; it fits, he responds to it. Well, he could respond to it if I had Google Assistant — maybe later. We talk to him, regardless. Is anthropomorphizing machines a good thing or bad? How close are we to the robot insurrection anyway?

Until Skynet actually does become self-aware, I’m pleased with Roomba’s work ethic. He’s so patient, so diligent, so detail-oriented. Thom calls him “our little soldier” in the voice of Frank Burns talking about Hot Lips in “M*A*S*H.”

Finally, Roomba is a master problem solver. He tries everything and rarely gives up. When he does concede defeat, however, he knows to ask for help. Which is just right: Do your best, but don’t be afraid to reach out to your team, your support group.

And it reminds me, I’ll have to end this now as I still need to figure out how to empty Roomba’s bin without going home.