Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Rise of the Machines

John Connor was right.  The machines are taking over.

Last weekend my roommate/landlord/male model bought an iRobot 110 Dirt Dog Workshop Robot, a wonderful little machine that looks kind of like R2-D2, only if the Godlike animated foot from Monty Python stepped on him and left him to scurry around in circles vacuuming dirt off concrete floors.

This is not the first iRobot product to join the Visser Household.  In fact, the addition of the Dirt Dog officially bringing our Robots vs. Humans tally to the following:

House Cleaning Robots: 3
Humans: 2

We now have three different robots that are specifically designed to clean our floors.  The original iRobot Roomba handles the general vacuum duties, the Scooba mops the kitchen, and the Dirt Dog has been assigned to the garage.  (And it's only a matter of time until we strap jousts to them and start an illegal iRobot-fighting ring.)

To my knowledge, none of these things display sentient Artificial Intelligence, though John does insist on addressing them with male pronouns like "he" and "him."  When you factor in the dishwasher, the microwave, and the 50-inch flatscreen downstairs that is networked into John's computer, you understand why I recently suggested that I am living at the zenith of my bachelor existence.

The whole thing reminds me of the stark contrast between what I always thought the future would look like and the way it turned out.  By the time I showed up on the scene back in the late 70's, it was pretty obvious that the bleak future of George Orwell's 1984 wasn't going to hit the nail on its dystopian head in time for its titular calendar year, but there was still time to make Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 a bulls-eye.  If we made it to the Moon by 1969, sending a spaceship all the way to Jupiter to contact a giant Hershey bar by 2001 seemed well within reason.  But we didn't.  And nine years later, as we enter 2010--which, ironically, is the name of Clarke's follow-up novel--we've only gotten as far as sending expensive Roombas to Mars.

Based on what I saw in old episodes of "Star Trek" and in the "Back to the Future" movies, I always assumed the future held three promises: flying sports cars, body suits, and little slots in walls that magically made any kind of food you wanted.  We haven't managed any of that, either, but the simple fact that you are reading this blog post on your laptop/desktop/iPhone via a wireless streaming network connection in-between downloading illegal digital music files and watching bootleg clips of the Super Bowl in HD on YouTube is a healthy reminder of we have accomplished.

The world of the present is a far cry from what we knew only a decade ago, and I think that if we looked at it honestly, we'd realize that like the Bushmen in "The Gods Must Be Crazy," we've turned the Coke bottles of technology from luxuries into necessities.

Last Friday morning as I was sitting in my shared cubicle, waiting for my computer to fire up, it occurred to me that everything I did for my day job was entirely dependent on the operational status of that PC.  It was a sobering thought, especially when you consider what sitting around all day will do to your Ch'i, not to mention your backside.  Almost on cue, the office shared drive went out that afternoon, and everyone bailed out early.

I don't bring this up to condemn technology as much as to raise an eyebrow to our dependence on it.  Technology is a wonderful thing, but it might be smart to loosen the tether every once in a while.  My sister and brother-in-law are getting ready to give up restaurant dining for Lent.  They aren't Catholic; they just like a good idea when they see it.  I'm not Catholic either, but maybe I could pull out the old Dyson vacuum a few times in the next month.

...or I could just let the Roomba do it.  I wouldn't want him to feel like he wasn't needed.