First we bought one for my son. He unpacked it and set it up, with one concern: would the cat permit it to exist?
The cat watched from a distance as the black plastic disc beeped and wooshed across the floor, its sweeping wings fluttering like a drone that should be buzzing through the heavens, but, like a wiser Icarus, has crashed to earth and is content to crawl, picking up dust, dirt, food crumbs and cat hairs in its way.
The cat’s head dropped, his attention focused as the robot bumped into its first chair leg. It spun thisaway and thataway until it entered the privileged space bounded the by the four legs. It bumped about and I believed that cat and I had a similar thought: was the robot some mere feckless thing that goes with the flow, plans its life around a morning horoscope, assumes a relentlessly positive attitude as it bashes itself against obstacles, or was it learning?
When the robot found its way out of the chair, the cat moved forward, nostrils flaring, whiskers whisking. He came up behind the robot. Would the machine be aware of him and turn around?
The robot proceeded with its first traverse of my son’s floor, oblivious of the potential danger. I thought of Neil Armstrong stepping on to the gray soil of the Moon. Then I corrected my metaphor: the robot’s job was to remove footprints, not make them.
My son is an IT executive for an internet company that has enough employees and has foos-ball and ping pong tables but has been around too long to be a start-up. He understands how these machines work, but he also likes to go on wilderness hikes, which suggests a healthy dislike of machines and people who wish they could be them.
He loved the robot. The cat noticed this and, presuming that anything that his food source permitted into the home was not a threat to the food source, returned to its perch atop a black high fidelity speaker amplifier, and dozed.
As the robot continued its journey I remembered reading “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This,” a short story by science fiction satirist Robert Sheckley. In that tale, a bored wife (this was written in the days when married women who didn’t have children where supposed to stay home while their husbands commuted to urban office jobs where they sat at desks, talked on the phone, went to meetings and had three martini lunches of steak and a baked potato) buys herself a domestic robot that cleans the floor well enough but, sensing her boredom, adapts itself so it can attend to her other, sensual needs.
Yes, the story was misogynistic, as much science fiction was back then, but it made its point: to what extent are prepared for the unintended consequences of labor-saving technology that can learn?
At this point, with the robot navigating the complexities of my son’s floor, the only consequence of interest was functional. Was the machine picking up all the stuff it was supposed to? Was it doing any good beyond the marginal entertainment in watching an electronic rat run a random maze?
The floor didn’t appear to be much different when my son stopped the robot, popped open the black plastic dirt compartment and, wow, was it stuffed with stuff! Cat hairs, food crumbs and–fulfilling the promise that in any new technology must before it becomes a necessity in your life–crud we didn’t even know was on the floor in the first place!
So my wife bought one for our home, hoping that the Daisy, our bossy West Highland Terrier, would also permit it to live.
Again, we sat in awe as the device went under and around chair legs, end tables, sofa skirts, floor lamps, shoes we had tossed off and a pile of books I still hadn’t read–a journeyman out on its first great adventure that, we hoped, would become a royal progress.
Daisy not only watched its every move, but pursued it intently, learning as much about it as it was learning about our living room.
Then, with a genuine sense of wonder, we beheld a fundamental difference between cats and dogs.
Where Izzy, my son’s cat, lost interest in the robot after it proved not to be a competitor, Daisy, a herding beast, maintained her concern, especially when the robot blundered into a dining room thicket of chair legs that did not give it enough room to come out. She drew close to it, made a gentle woof, and moved her paw in the direction the robot should follow. When the robot failed to find the way out, Daisy nudged it toward freedom.
Does a dog have Buddha nature? Daisy does.