The FloorMaster

As Joe wanders through the (incredibly depressing) lobby of St. God’s Memorial Hospital, it is at once familiar but wrong. One of these wrong things is a floor cleaning robot labeled The FloorMaster. It loudly announces “YOUR FLOOR IS NOW CLEAN!” while bumping over and over into a toe kick under a cabinet. (It also displays this same phrase on a display panel.) The floor immediately below its path is, in fact, spotless, but the surrounding floor is so filthy it is opaque with dirt, as well as littered with syringes and trash lined with unsettling stains.

There are few bananas for scale, but I’m guessing it’s half meter square. It has a yellow top with greed sides and highlights. It has bumpers and some

Narratively awesome

The wonderful thing about this device is it quickly tells us a couple of things at once. First, the FloorMaster is a technology that is, itself, kind of stupid. Today’s Roombas “know” to turn a bit when they bump into a wall. It’s one of the basic ways they avoid this very scenario. So this illustrates that the technology in this world is, itself, kind of stupid. (How society managed to make it this far without imploding or hell, exploding, is a mystery.)

It also shows that the people around the machines are failing to notice and do anything about the robot. They are either too dull to notice or this is just so common that it’s not worth doing anything about.

It also shows how stupid capitalism has become (it’s a running theme of St. God’s and the rest of the movie). It calls itself the floor master, but in no way has it mastered your floors. In no way are your floors clean, despite what the device itself is telling and blinking at you. And CamelCase brand names are so 1990s, much less 2505.

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Realistically stupid

So, I wrote this whole book about agents, i.e. technologies that persistently respond to triggers with behaviors that serve people. It’s called Designing Agentive Technologies: AI That Works for People. One of my recurring examples in that book and when I speak publicly about that content is the Roomba, so I have a bookload of opinions on how this thing should be designed. I don’t want to simply copy+paste that book here. But know that Chapter 9 is all about handoff and takeback between an agent and a user, and ideally this machine would be smart enough to detect when it is stuck and reach out to the user to help.

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I would be remiss not to note that, as with the The Fifth Element floor sweeping robots, safety of people around the underfoot robot is important. This is especially true in a hospital setting, where people may be in a fragile state and not as alert as they would ordinarily be. So unless this was programmed to run only when there was no one around, it seems like a stupid thing to have in a hospital. OK, chalk another point up to its narrative virtues.

Fighting US Idiocracy

Speaking of bots, there is a brilliant bot that you can sign up for to help us resist American idiocracy. It’s the resistbot, and you can find it on Facebook messenger, twitter, and telegram. It provides easy ways to find out who represents you in Congress, and deliver messages to them in under 2 minutes. It’s not as influential as an in-person visit or call, but as part of your arsenal, it helps with reminders for action. Join!

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Other floor cleaning robots

Yesterday I offered extra credit if a reader could name the first floor sweeping robot in a film in the Make It So survery. Pixel I/O smartly noted that The Jetsons (debut 1962) had one—its autovac. (Thanks to Matt Houghton of TechVert.com for posting the image.)

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This is a great catch, but Pixel I/O rightly acknowledged that The Jetsons was not a film, so off by a technicality. Shouts out anyway, as this example was a full three or four years before the film I did have in mind, which was the only-nominally sci-fi comedy The Glass Bottom Boat (1966). Still, I happened to come across it in research and captured it.

In the film, the inventor Rod (Bruce Templeton) tries to impress Jennifer (Doris Day) with this floor-cleaning robot. It only manages to pop out of its door to arc towards a dropped banana peel and through reversed footage, arc right back into its home under the kitchen island.

What’s interesting about these two examples are their similarity. They’re each the size of a small dog. Each has an antenna and two eyes. The antennae speak of the radio-controlled paradigm of the era. Audiences needed to know how they are being controlled, and this shortcut answered the question at a glance. The eyes hint at a need for anthropomorphism, or possibly zoomorphism, for users to understand the thing’s capabilities. We know it can see us and the things around it because of this simple visual affordance.

Floor sweeping robots

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To illustrate his capitalist ideology, (a high-tech version of the parable of the broken window) Zorg activates his automatic cleaning robots. To do this, he deliberately crashes a glass to the floor, where a set of robots come scuttling out from beneath his desk and begin cleaning up.

Three of them serve to demarcate the space as a “”robots working”” zone, with tall masts from which red beacon lights warn anyone nearby. In the middle of these three, a sweeper robot gathers the large pieces of glass with broom and dustbin actuators.

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Then, a vacuum robot spins above the location to remove the fine pieces of glass.

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Finally, a hemispheric robot also comes to sterilize the area, or possibly to just spray a pleasing scent in the air. After they are done, they retreat automatically to the desk, and a new drinking glass rises from a hidden compartment to Zorg’s desktop, filling with water to the accompaniment of a small voice that announces ““water”” and, as a bowl of the stuff also raises, ““fruit.””

As Zorg pulls a cherry from the bowl, the same voice announces somewhat pointlessly, ““a cherry.”” (Perhaps useful if the eater is unfamiliar with basic types of fruit.)

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Analysis

The robots are meant to do their job safely and efficiently, and then put themselves away as quickly as possible. The main “interface” task they have is to keep nearby humans informed and safe. (Did Asimov write a law for vacuum cleaners?) A minor secondary goal might be to distinguish the function of each by their shape. The robots inform observers explicitly with the stanchion robots’ beacon lights and bright red patterns. In addition, the whirring sounds of each robot’s motors and actuators help to reinforce the fact that they are working. If they were completely silent they would be more problematic for people not looking or unable to see. The beacon might be a bit of overkill and distracting to someone at a distance, but since the robots are small enough to be a trip hazard, and Cornelius is in fact less than a meter away at the time of sweeping, I can see why it might be needed in this particular case. That they are each readily distinguishable means it might be easier to intervene or select a particular one for maintenance. So, aside from the faulty logic they’re meant to embody, mostly really well designed.

The main improvement I can imagine is that the system might reduce the trip hazard by unifying these disparate functions in a single device, and then either keeping them stanchion-high or flattening its top out like a step. But then we’d just have invented Roomba five years early.

Extra credit

This isn’t the first floor cleaning robot seen on the silver screen. There was another movie over three decades before that included one, even though it wasn’t what most people would consider sci-fi. Can any of the Make It So readers identify that film in the comments? (I’ll post pics of the answer once someone guesses it.)