Living with Robots (and Gawking Neighbors)

When you’re constantly surrounded by technology and automation, you tend to take things for granted, just accepting all the cool stuff happening around you as normal. It isn’t until someone who doesn’t live with this stuff on a daily basis comes over and points out all the stuff that happens in our house as different and special that we pay attention to it and realize how awesome it is.

Recently, my wife’s sister and her kids came to visit for a few days and constantly noticed all the things that just happen “automagically” in our house.

“What was that noise?”

“Oh, that was the back door. It automatically locks itself after two minutes.”

“What’s happening with the windows?”

“That’s our motorized shades. They automatically close every day at sunset for privacy. They’ll open up tomorrow morning at 8:00 to let in light.”

“Did you just turn the lights on with your phone?”

“Yeah. I can control all the lights in the house using this Control4 app.”

Automation is at its best when it is truly auto; doing things without your interaction and performing some task that improves your life. Either handling a mundane chore you don’t want to do or just freeing you up to do something else. In this respect, robots can offer some terrific solutions. We recently added two robots to our home, and I have to say they point the way toward a better, hopefully Skynet-free, robots-as-overlords future.

When most people hear the word robot, they think of some humanoid-looking, android-type being from Terminator or Westworld. In reality, most modern residential-use robots are purpose-built to perform specific tasks and look and act more like MSE-6, that toaster-looking droid that rolls around the Death Star and is easily frightened by Wookiees.

I stumbled across the iRobot Braava while wandering around Best Buy. Braava is similar to the company’s Roomba robotic vacuum but sweeps and mops hardwood and tile floors. Since my wife recently gave birth, I figured this might be nice to help out around the house.

We call this MopBot, and he dutifully drives around our kitchen, breakfast nook, family room, and dining room sweeping and mopping up. He bumps into things, backs up, figures a way around stuff, and then keeps on going. When he finishes working, he plays a little tune, returns to where he started, and waits for me to put him back in his charging cradle to prepare for another duty cycle.

I never really paid any attention to our floors in the past, but now I’m super in tune with how they look and feel. After dinner, I grab MopBot, attach either his sweeping or mopping attachment, drop him on the floor, and press Go. Then I go sit on the couch and drink a beer. The floors look and feel better, and it makes me happy.

Our second robot is a new Husqvarna Automower robot lawnmower. I’ll be honest, when I first heard about a robotic lawnmower, I thought it was a stupid, gratuitous idea. Then I started thinking about how much I pay my gardener to come and mow the lawn, how bad the grass starts looking in between his visits, and how often he mows over a sprinkler head and doesn’t tell me about it. Then the Automower started to sound like a wonderful idea with an actual payback date.

Shockingly, Husqvarna has been making robot lawnmowers for over 20 years, but they’ve yet to catch on here in the States. After running a boundary wire around my property and flower beds for MowBot (or Mo for short) to know where he should and shouldn’t mow, I set up the Husqvarna Automower Connect app on my iPhone, set a mowing schedule, set the grass cutting height, and sat back to let MowBot do his thing. And, you know, drink a beer.

I have to say, living with MowBot is awesome. He mows two days a week, starting and stopping on his own. He’s almost totally silent (58 decibels at 2 meters), uses razor blades to precisely cut the grass blades, and automatically returns to his docking/charging station when he needs a power-up. If he runs into a problem, I get an alert on my phone. Or I can check up on him using the app, starting or stopping him at any time, get his exact GPS position, and see where he has been mowing by looking at a satellite image of my house.

Best of all, my lawn looks terrific all the frickin’ time! I come home every day to a perfectly cut, manicured lawn. It is also quite a conversation starter with the neighbors. “Are you the house with that thing that drives around your yard? What is that?” People literally stop in the street to watch MowBot cruise around mowing. With Amazon Echo and Siri utilizing more voice-control features, the dream of a Jetsons-style Rosie the Robot probably isn’t too far off. And having a robot that can pick up dirty clothes, make us dinner, and bring me a beer is the kind of future I can get excited about.