Saturday, December 16, 2006

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Buying Our First Robot: A 21st Century Christmas

It took me a while to get use to living in the 21st Century. Born in 1955, for most of my life the 21st Century was the far future of science fiction, comic books and Saturday morning cartoons. While I enjoy reading what the future may hold, I’ve always felt a closer kinship for the past. Perhaps I was just born a little out of my time. It is probably why my favorite Christmas traditions seem more firmly rooted in the 19th Century than whatever year we happen to be living in at the moment.

Which brings me to how this Christmas brought me back to the future.

I come from a family where making a Christmas list was the exclusive domain of children…a contract, if you will, between Santa Claus and every good little girl and boy. Parents were always there to help Santa execute the terms of the contract and to remind you to keep up your end of the bargain. The adults in our family were left with dropping broad hints as Christmas approached. A magazine would be opened strategically to a certain ad or a family member would pause looking at an item in a department store window (when department stores dressed their windows) for what seemed an inordinate length of time, but there were no lists.

With every marriage comes compromise. It turned out that in my wife’s family the adults all made wish lists for Christmas. It took a while for the culture shock to wear off, but I love my wife and was willing to do most anything to fit in with her side of the family as well. My first attempts were awkward. “Dear Santa”…scratch that. “Dear Mother-In-Law, Father-In-Law, Brother-In-Law, Sister-In-Law”…too legal sounding. Eventually I got the hang of it.

Within our own household, the product of a mixed marriage of wish list writers and Christmas gift hinters, we’ve found a comfortable balance between surprise gifts that come from the heart and those gifts we know with more certainty to be greatly appreciated. This balance works except when it comes to practical requests. I find it hard to get excited about requests like, “I could use a new vacuum cleaner.”

My wife, Sue, also enjoys home remodeling and she’s good at it. Perhaps it comes from being the daughter of an engineer. But going into Sears and buying a new drill or table saw at Christmas can be embarrassing under the usual barrage of questions commissioned sales people feel compelled to ask:

“Buying this for yourself?” “Nope.” “Your father?” “Nope.” “A brother?”

Looking down at my shuffling feet, “No, it’s a Christmas present for my wife.” “Ha. Ha. Very funny sir.”

So when Sue asked for a Roomba, and after ascertaining that a Roomba was for cleaning floors, I decided that it was something we were just going to treat ourselves to right then and there and avoid trying to wrap what I assumed would be a bulky boring vacuum cleaner. What I didn’t suspect is we were about to buy our first robot.

When my brother and I were kids, we got a Mr. Machine for Christmas one year. It was a clear plastic mechanical man filled with gears that marched around the living room floor when you wound him up. Then there were the stamped metal robots that ran on batteries and trundled across the floor, eyes glowing and shooting death rays to a deafening whirring sound. Who needs a robot around the house that shoots death rays?

The advent of so-called artificial intelligence brought our kids the likes of Furbie when they were young. I could never figure out how useful robots would be that were this needy or starved for affection. Why not just buy a dog?

The Japanese are hard at work trying to produce an array of robots to mimic human speech, facial expressions and hold conversations with humans. Yawn. Why would I pay thousands of dollars for someone to talk to when there are so many people in the world I can communicate with in person, by cell phone, blackberry or e-mail?

I was starting to despair that there would ever be a practical robot in our homes. That is until I watched the Roomba at work. This flat, saucer shaped, device, guides itself around the room. It has special brushes for corners and to sweep around table legs, it goes under couches without moving them, it plots a pattern to make sure it covers the entire floor. When it’s dust bin is full it beeps at you so you know to empty it. The more expensive models come with a docking station that it returns to automatically. Instead of lugging a vacuum cleaner up the steps anymore and pushing it around a room, my daughter bounds up to her room with the Roomba under one arm and it does the rest.

I wish I had bought stock in the company that makes the Roomba, which is called appropriately IRobot. It seems the Jetsons got it wrong. We didn’t need a Rosie the robot to push around other mechanical devices. Like Star Wars array of practical “droids” designed to do specific tasks, it seems the future belongs to smarter appliances.

Merry Christmas R2-D2 and welcome to the 21st Century.