The headlines this week have been full of tech-laden stories that supposedly herald the end of a lot of blue-collar jobs. Wendy’s is installing customer ordering kiosks in 1,000 locations. You can now ride a an AI-guided, driver-free Uber in select Midwestern markets. Google’s robot division has unveiled a new robot that can jump 4’ into the air, climb stairs and carry 50kg (it can also induce nightmares, but…). If we believe the red-faced journalistic screaming, the machines are coming for our jobs, and possibly, us.
I want to offer a counterpoint in the form of my wife’s robotic vacuum. Now, I call it my wife’s robotic vacuum not to reinforce some bygone stereotype of housekeeping being women’s work but because this is the third one we’ve owned, the last two didn’t work and I put my foot down and said if she valued my opinion at all, she wouldn’t buy this one.
It arrived the next day.
You’re no doubt familiar with the Roomba-style robotic vacuums that are widely available now, the dust buster/pie pan/remote control car hybrids that bump around the room, ideally picking up dust, dirt and hair as they meander about. From a technology standpoint, this robot is complex and cutting edge. Its body is laden with sensors that tell it when there’s an edge, or a piece of furniture, or moisture—at which point it turns off the vacuum motor, pulls up the brushes, and drops a mop pad to pick up the liquid. It has the processing power to “map” our living space, to know where the boundaries are and determine the optimum cleaning path before returning home. In theory.
In practice, I’ve taken to calling it Lennie—a nod to “Of Mice & Men’s” simple-minded laborer that was more likely to maim something in a gruesome fashion than do a good job at anything. Here’s an abbreviated list of the things that have stopped the vacuum in its tracks and caused it to emit a panicked “alert” beep:
• iPhone cable
• the dog moved
• corner of a chair
• slightly-raised transition piece between kitchen tile and living room laminate
• stuck in a corner
• the dog won’t move
• Play-Doh container lid
• different corner of same chair
• it high-centered itself on a shoe… that was only in the way because the vacuum had snared and pulled it out from the entry way earlier… then knocked it over
Any time saved by not manually vacuuming the house is consumed, and then increased, by having to rescue this thing from all the perilous situations it finds for itself. You would think, in a reasonably logical world, that automated technology this bad would lead consumers to balk and refuse to buy it, at least until the technology noticeably improved. But it appears this frustration is only going to grow, and that bad tech is going to become more commonplace. There was an article in The Atlantic recently (read here) that echoes, and expands, on my frustration with the vacuum and explains the nefarious reason behind its futility.
The article starts with a dissection (figuratively, not literally… thankfully) of automatic flushing toilets. How they don’t work well, but keep getting installed and are becoming so widespread now that it’s hard to find manually flushing toilets in public places anymore. Then the author dives deeper—paper towel dispensers replaced with automated blowers that don’t dry our hands but do spread germs, automated faucets that give short bursts of full-blast water and combine with the sensor toilets to waste more water than they supposedly save—to introduce and develop the concept of “precarity”.
Precarity, we are told, is the forced sense of uncertainty that many folks live under now and what the author warns is a new standard of living we’re being conditioned for. Through countless instances of technology not quite working correctly in our daily lives—autocorrect mistakes on our phones, misbehaving automated toilets, search results that pull up one valid entry and 10 irrelevant ones… automated phone recordings that never, ever work EVER—we’re all being conditioned for a future where nothing works exactly right, we can’t truly depend on anything and companies can profit from lower manpower costs and lower standards and expectations. If only the human race had been conditioned for lower standard and expectations back when I was trying to date in high school…
So while a lot of people are worried that jobs will be taken by robots and automated tech in the near future, there was at least an angle… a silver lining… that we would trade these job losses for an improved quality of life. That yes, we would lose the manual labor and the service sectors to automation but we would gain some semblance of a futuristic Jetsons-esque lifestyle. Safer products, driverless cars, food that cooks itself, robot maids… day-to-day annoyances and chores would go away in exchange for everyone having more leisure time.
What’s becoming clear, at least from what we’ve seen so far, is that we’re not going to get that anytime soon, if we ever get it. We’re being primed, through every back-wetting flush and every poorly garbled autocorrect message, to expect a much more dystopic, frustrating vision of the future. A future where we do get automation and robots, but at such a low service level that they either work just well enough that we won’t throw them out the nearest window or that they work so poorly, by design, that we just don’t try to use them at all. Sort of like what banks have done with their automated phone systems.
Are you excited for the future yet?!