There can be little doubt that robots are coming. We see automation and robotics popping up everywhere, from self serve fast food kiosks to warehouse product management. It is said that by 2025 fully 50% of jobs that exist today will be automated. This, along with rapidly changing demographics, will have huge economic effects, and for the workers’ comp industry it will completely alter the way we do business. For starters, the average injured worker in 2025 is likely to be a robot that does not speak English. But that is not the worst of it. According to some experts we’ll all be dead by then. 

There has been, in recent months, a cacophonous rise in alarmist warnings regarding the unrelenting advance of robotics and artificial intelligence. Science and tech luminaries such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have been cautioning the world that robots, driven by adaptive learning capabilities, will soon have the potential to dominate and destroy mankind. They tell us that, unless we proceed with extreme caution, the development of AI devices that can expand their knowledge without the ability for compassion or empathy will ultimately seal our fate on this mortal coil. 

However, if my robotic vacuum cleaner is any indication, I can assure you we are safe for the foreseeable future.  

My latest tech toy, made by Neato Robotics, was delivered this last week, and like any middle aged child with an unhealthy penchant for gizmos I could not wait to get home and play with it. Having only mildly convinced my wife we needed such a contraption because of the unrelenting shedding of 4 cats, I also had as an underlying motive the need to justify this latest technological intrusion into her otherwise tranquil life. 

I also knew our house, which does not have a conventional layout, would present some challenges for this device. We have an octagon shaped kitchen in the center of the main floor, which means odd angles and obstacles exist throughout the adjacent rooms. Navigation for a robotic vacuum would be a challenge, simply because the layout is not in any way standard. 

The Neato is designed to start its cleaning regimen by scanning the room with sensors, clean the outer perimeter, and then complete each room in a grid pattern before moving on to the next room. Unlike its primary competitor, the Roomba, it is quite an ingenious concept. It can actually detect furniture and work around the obstacles. The Roomba generally bounces off of objects and completes its tasks in a random pattern. Compared to the Roomba, the Neato is a veritable Mack Daddy in artificial intelligence. When it’s battery runs low, it is designed to return to its charging base, recharge, and then return to the exact spot where it stopped in order to resume cleaning. 

Early results were mixed. I must say, while the Neato Robotic vacuum is one impressive piece of engineering, our model, for a robot, appears to be dumb as a brick. Now I must stress it is early, and subsequent runs have shown improvement, but our first trial left me far less concerned for the immediate future of mankind. 

The Neato started off well enough, but soon became confused with a table at the end of our family room sofa. It entered under the table from “the inside”; that is to say from between the couch and the end table. From that point it became confused and seemed unable to extricate itself. Even though the area directly in front of it was wide open, it seemed intent on trying to leave the area the same way it came in. It would encounter a table leg, and spin in a circle and backtrack, only to repeat that with another leg on the table. Compounding the frustration is that I found myself trying to “talk the vacuum” out of its predicament, and the damn thing just wouldn’t listen. “Go straight! Just go straight! You’ve got this, just keep….  No, no, no, don’t back up! What the hell are you doing, you stupid piece of #%|}#%???”

After about 5 minutes I picked up the Neato and placed it back in open territory. 

It’s next hurdle was a dustpan and broom set we keep next to the trash can in our kitchen. It approached the dustpan facing the open end, and apparently could not detect it at that sloping angle. The end result was it rode straight up the dustpan, until it hit the handle, then it backed down, and drove straight back up again. 

It began repeating this gesture over and over, with such veracity that it appeared as though it was trying to make love to the dustpan. I found myself thinking they should get a room, and I felt embarrassed for watching. I have no idea what the offspring of a robotic vacuum and a dustpan would be, but I am pretty sure future generations would condemn me for allowing it to happen. 

I separated the two and sent the Neato on its way. The rest of the run was uneventful, except when it started to return to the base, it got tripped up by that stupid end table again. I extricated it once more, but the poor thing died before reaching its base. It stopped about 6 inches short of its destination.

A subsequent run showed improvement, but rather than have it repeat an area I moved it to the kitchen and let it go. From there I would say it gave a masterful performance, reaching and cleaning much of the kitchen, dining room, living room, foyer and family room. Under the dining room table, a tight area surrounded by 4 chairs, it performed a graceful ballet, deftly navigating the labyrinth of legs with nary a problem. 

It even (kind of sort of) passed the blind cat test. As regular readers know, I have a blind cat named Coal. He is a very calm cat overall, and unlike most that are of the feline persuasion, is not repelled by sound or loud objects. I was concerned that I might come home one day to find my fuzzy blind buddy wedged halfway up my robotic vacuum, since it may indeed run into him from time to time. On this second run, that question was answered. Coal was lying on the dining room floor, “watching” the sound with his ears as the vacuum maneuvered around the room. Sure enough, at one point the Neato turned and squarely set its sight on a path directly blocked by Coal. The vacuum came to within an inch of his body and stopped abruptly, only lightly touching one paw. This startled Coal a bit, and he made the decision to stand and walk away. I was very proud of both of them at that moment; until the Neato lurched forward and hit Coal in the ass as he was walking away. He looked back with a curious agitation, and for a moment the vacuum seemed to pursue him in a circle, nipping at his heels as he sauntered off. It was a brief encounter, but it appears they will be able to coexist overall. 

All in all it was a successful second run. The only problem was, at the end of the cycle, it had no clue where it’s base was, since I had physically picked it up and started it in the kitchen. It wandered the rooms like a lost child looking for its mother, until it’s battery could take it no farther. 

Kind of sad, actually. On the plus side, our house is cleaned regularly, and I was still amazed at what that little bastard picked up on his first two runs. That little guy really sucks – and I mean that in a most positive way.  

As a side note, I broke a wine glass later the same evening off that very same end table that had so confounded the Neato earlier in the day. I used the “spot cleaning” mode for the first time, and that thing made me proud. It picked up all manner of tiny pieces of broken glass, covering the area fully and sleekly maneuvering completely under and around that table without issue. It appears that it is slowly learning the lay of the land. 

So, my vacuum may have the ability to learn its environment and improve its performance. Robots may end up taking all our jobs, but as far as annihilating mankind, I think we’re safe for now. I am concerned for my dust pan, however. It appears depressed, as apparently the Neato hasn’t called.


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