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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The Door to the Chamber of Dreams

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Durand-Durand forces Barbarella at gunpoint to take the invisible key she wears in a chain around her neck to the bedchamber of the Black Queen, also known as the Chamber of Dreams. There they encounter an invisible wall and have a difficult time trying to discern the location of the keyhole. Luckily, in a struggle she drops the key, and it falls through the transparent floor which ripples like water under their feet. This unlocks the invisible door and allows them both to pass into the Chamber of Dreams.

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Just within the chamber atop a pedestal sits a second invisible key that can reclose the invisible door. To imprison Barbarella and the Queen within, he rushes in, grabs the key, and throws it down to the floor before Barbarella can react.

Though of course this sequence of events is in place simply to show that Durand-Durand has imprisoned Barbarella and the Black Queen, as a system it raises many questions.

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An invisible key certainly means that it can be hidden in plain sight and so has some extra security from that perspective. But its being invisible means that recovering it when lost is problematic at best. Plus, unless it is kept somewhere on the body, the invisibility places a burden on the memory of the keeper as to where it is. (You can’t leave a physical reminder of where it is or you lose the benefit of its being invisible.) Are these costs to memory worth the mildly increased security?

Also, as we see, any spot on the floor is an acceptable target for dropping a key. At first this might seem like hyper-usability, since it’s nearly impossible to miss the keyhole, but it also means it’s hard to recover from a mistake. No, wait. It’s impossible to recover from a mistake. That is, if you fumble and accidentally drop a key, the door will activate. We don’t see a key-return mechanism, so this mistake is deeply unrecoverable. Even if that key-return mechanism is somewhere else in the palace, that’s a disaster for usability.

That might be bad enough, but when you realize that this is a royal chamber, it seems an impossible oversight, as if it were custom designed just to imprison people. The Queen seems genuinely distressed when she realizes Durand-Durand has stolen her key, insisting that they “are doomed. Dooooomed!’ but I’m pretty sure anyone who had given it just a moment’s thought before would have realized that this was the inevitable result of this ridiculous design. Maybe the true power of the Mathmos is to keep the queen perpetually blind to stupid interaction design.

The Black Queen Dreams