The pitfalls of automating your vacuum cleaner

Bryan Sim
7 min readJun 12, 2019

“I’m retiring my robovac.”

Over the course of a week, I announced this to numerous people, most of whom had the same reaction of surprise and pity. “You can’t get rid of it! How do you think it will feel?” said one of my less mentally sound friends. “Wait, you live in a 250 square foot apartment, why do you even have a robovac?” said another. Although I don’t know how my robovac felt after I left it in my apartment lobby for the vultures, the reason I bought one in the first place was because I was sold a dream. A year prior, when I clicked “Checkout” on Amazon, I was filled with hope: Hope of a better life with fewer vacuuming-related tasks. I was to be disappointed.

A few weeks after euthanizing my robovac (let’s call him Carl), I bought a Miele canister vacuum cleaner (other brands are available), and although cleaning my apartment is still a chore, I’ve managed to drag it out every week or so to spruce up my apartment. It’s so far lived up to my expectations of mediocrity.

I thought it would be an apt time to discuss Carl the robovac because it seems like the world is racing to automate everything. Some developments will probably be disruptive but useful (I happen to enjoy driving, but I know many people find it a necessary evil), while others… well, let’s just say there’s a robotic arm serving coffee about half a mile from where I live, and nobody is buying anything.

I don’t know which ideas are going to truly change society vs. what’s going to be kitschy and expire after a few years, but living with Carl the failed robovac has made me think about what automation should and shouldn’t try to do.

My piece of sh*t robovac made me its servant

Anyone watching an ad for a robovac for the first time would think that we’re only a few years away from the near sentient beings featured in I, Robot, Bicentennial Man, or A.I. On the other hand, anyone who has actually owned one knows that the main thing it does is to suck whatever fun is left out of cleaning.

And so it was with Carl.

First of all, he didn’t automate the act of preparing to vacuum. When I vacuum and encounter an obstacle, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution has gifted me with the prefrontal cortex that allows me to navigate around said obstacle. Carl the wannabe vacuum cleaner, on the other hand, seemed to particularly enjoy humping the edge of my bathroom rug. So, because he needed an impeccably flat surface to function, and also because he had a total lack of body awareness (i.e., that a 12 inch diameter machine can’t pass through a 2-inch wide crevice), before activating him, I had to traverse my apartment, rearranging all my furniture to turn it into a playpen for an inanimate object (yeah, take that sick burn Carl, I just called you inanimate).

Things didn’t get better once Carl was done. Did you know that you have to clean your robovac? Because I didn’t. Yes, that’s right — I had to clean the thing that I bought to clean my apartment automatically. When I’m rich, I’ll be sure to wake up early in the morning to pick up my chauffeur so that he can drive me to work.

If Carl was good at anything, it was in the vacuuming itself. However, this was also what made him so obnoxious, because if there was any fun to be had in vacuuming your apartment, it was the act of vacuuming: Walking around a room making dust disappear with a flick of your wand. Why do you think meth addicts like vacuuming so much? It’s not because they like rearranging furniture. Carl was like a foreign striker in soccer who could be perfectly articulate when asking for the ball, but who would magically forget how to speak English when asked to track back and defend.

Is there a universe in which Carl could have succeeded (besides one which is completely flat, free of obstacles, and already clean to begin with)? I think so. But while automation can alleviate the humdrum of life, it’s also really important that it tackles the tasks that are truly unpleasant, and not just leave human beings with the “scraps” of manual labor.

Stop trying to non-consensually optimize me

“Did you move our meeting?” Neha, my good friend at work and one of the best engineers I’ve had the pleasure of working with, asked me on Slack a few days ago.

“No, it’s that auto-scheduling-thing you’re using,” I replied. She had been experimenting with an app that was supposed to help optimize when meetings were scheduled by moving them around.

“Oh, it says it rescheduled it to give you more uninterrupted time to work.”

“Shoot, sorry.” Oh wait, why am I apologizing for a piece of software?

First of all, f*** you, automatic calendar; don’t tell me how to live my life.

More importantly, there were other people in that meeting! Rescheduling so that I can have more uninterrupted time is not cool. Imagine if I sent that email on my own? “Hey guys, I’m moving our meeting to tomorrow instead because you all are interrupting my day.”

Look, I get that everyone thinks: “If only I could edit everyone else’s schedule, then I could really get some work done,” but a big part of living and working together as a species is adhering to the social contracts that make our life more fair and predictable. I take comfort in the fact that every other Sunday morning, I wake up early to catch up with my former hackathon teammate Anyi who is a few time zones ahead of me. And when either of us can’t make it, we give what adults call, “advanced notice”. Constantly rescheduling a previously agreed upon meeting for stupid reasons is called being an “assh*le”, and the last thing I would want is for a piece of software to turn me into one.

As more and more tools appear that aim to help us be more productive, it’s really important to realize that other people matter too, and it’s especially important when we let technology represent us, for example, when we use these tools to automate the way we interact with others.

The necessary evil of caring

A few days later, I was at work when friend of mine sent a text asking me how I was doing.

“Oh, go on, just press the “I’m good” autocomplete option”, the antisocial part of my brain pleads. “It’s so easy — they won’t even know!”

Well, I’ll know, and I can’t be the only person who’s felt dirty after using a computer-generated message on someone else.

Why is less clear. After all, in 2019, none of us can actually spell properly after a lifetime of outsourcing that part of our brains to spellcheck, and most of us probably feel just fine using old-school autocomplete where, at the very least, your brain has to conjure up the first few letters of a word.

Perhaps that’s the sticking point: It feels cheap when we’re not the origin of our ideas. I’m happy when technology helps me cast my imagination onto paper (or screen), but if I’m merely selecting an option for something to say to my friend (that originated from the bowels of my phone), is it really my idea? Or am I just the vessel through which a computer is talking to my friend? Sure, I could have overridden the algorithm if I wanted to, but I didn’t, did I? And if the software is designed to make it as frictionless as possible for me to choose to use the recommended reply, what does that say about how much free will I have?

So, in one sense, I feel like I’m being robbed of my authenticity, and that this form of autocomplete (or “autogeneration”) is the first step to movies like Surrogates, Ready Player One, or my personal favorite, the Japanese film, Hinokio, which is about a teenage boy who attends school through a remote controlled robot. In all these films, the dissonance I felt came from both the artificiality of the front that the protagonists are putting up, but also the ease with which they do it, transforming from socially awkward “normal” human beings into suave, charming caricatures of themselves.

More important than that, however, is that I don’t believe (or perhaps, don’t want to believe) that trust can be automated. Think about the people you trust the most. I’m betting you don’t trust them because of all the hysterical laughter you’ve shared (which, don’t get me wrong, is important), but rather, because of the adversity that you’ve overcome together as well as the time and effort you’ve both invested in your relationship. Some things are meant to be difficult — that’s what gives them meaning.

So, while technology will probably get better at helping us present a version of ourselves to others, I hope that we don’t forget that the onus is on us to materialize the best version of who we want to be, and not the easiest version of that person.

For better or worse

We’ve had a few interns at work over the last year, and I’ve found myself both amazed at what they can do, and wistful about the path they took to get there. I’m old enough to remember when being overseas meant being nigh uncontactable. Now, it seems like the entire world is but a few keystrokes away (or less, if you let your phone decide what you should say). I wonder if that makes us more connected because it’s easier to stay in touch, or less connected, because it’s easier to take for granted.

In the same way, while automation will bring a sea change in the way humans relate to work, I wonder if it will free us to spend our time on endeavors that matter to us, or cause us to waste away in disillusionment, as machines start to do everything better, like creating better art by picking up on our approval cues, much like how our phones guess at what we’d like to say, even now.

I’d like to believe that in the long run, we each have a say in how technology develops through the products that we decide use. But I don’t know if that’s true. I do know, however, that we have a say in our own relationship with technology, through what we choose to adopt and what we choose to abandon. Rest in peace, Carl.