*Pic: Robin Zebrowski, Flickr

Robots …

Ideally a column needs a good opening line to grab the reader. How about this one from my wife Donna when I arrived home from a fishing trip: “Charlie I want you to meet my new lover.”

She beamed as she pointed to a flying saucer-shaped object 7 cm high by 30 cm in diameter whizzing around the floor of the living room. “Well at least I love him.” She explained, “When I want, he works all day without any complaints or dramas and when he’s finished he puts himself away and I don’t have to hear from him or bother about him until the next time I put him to work. He is the ideal househusband. That’s why I love him so much.”

I remember a long time ago when Donna gazed as fondly on me as she now does upon this interloping piece of science fiction technology.

“Women,” Dr Freud once mused after a lifetime of pioneering sexual psychology, “What is it that they want?” Well Sigmund it’s taken me a long time too but now I think I know. I reckon Mrs Freud, just like my wife, would have been delighted with the handy ‘iRobot 600 series Vacuum Cleaning Robot’. And why not, ‘Lover Boy’ (here after known as LB) is certainly a piece of work. A side brush under his rounded cowling sweeps along the edge of walls and into corners. Two ‘counter-rotating brushes’ scoop up dirt, hair, dust and other debris into an internal bin, while a powerful vacuum sucks up the remaining particles ‘leaving the floor spotless’. If this reads like promotional material that’s because I studied the owner’s manual to understand how this gadget works its wonders. And wonders they certainly are. The floors up on High Dudgeon have never been so tidy.

Unlike my own desultory attempts at cleaning, LB works equally on all surfaces, wood, vinyl, carpet, tiles, whatever, moving without complaint from one medium to the other. I must confess my initial jealous hostility has very quickly turned into a man-crush. Especially after I realised I couldn’t kill him. He is indestructible. I nudged him in the direction of the staircase towards which he rushed at high speed like a robotic lemming. “So much for you LB,” I whispered cruelly. “Man triumphs over machine!” But on the very edge of the cliff he abruptly stopped and turned around and went off cleaning in a different direction. He won’t clean the stairs but nor will he fall down them.

This future shock only occurred after Donna saw her doctor about a sore back. She was advised to do no more vacuuming and as little bending as possible. The doctor, hopelessly out of touch with mainstream Australia (as they so often are down in lower Sandy Bay) assumed that one of the men of the house would step up and bend over. Which is why a deeply cynical Donna came to purchase the iRobot 1600 series taking High Dudgeon into the twenty first Century.

I was a little surprised to learn that LB cost a touch over five hundred dollars. But he does come with a twelve-month warranty and Donna reminded me that a cleaning ‘person’ would cost $100 for a just a few hours. Incidentally the cleaner only works for cash and then only when it suits. I have to admit LB is pretty good value but like most blokes he’s a one trick wonder. He doesn’t mop the floors. But for another $600 his brother the ‘iRobot Braava 380T Floor Mopping Robot’ will perform that task. Perhaps I watched too many ‘Terminator’ movies but I do retain the same niggling fears the Liberals have of illegal immigrants: you let just one of these buggers in and there will be no stopping them. They will take over!

I mean do you seriously think these fiendish machines will be content to do only menial jobs like cleaning, accounting and maybe journalism? Or will they want to run the show. I’m with Stephen Hawking who suspects the latter. Hawking, always the smartest guy in the room has warned that, “We cannot know whether we will be infinitely helped by AI or ignored by it and sidelined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”

While Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a hotly contested matter in the academic scientific world, in the real world the debate is already meaningless with delivery drones and driverless cars already at work. The practical science is way ahead of the ethics. Robotic manufacturing plants are now producing cars and white goods and robots will soon replace humans in all mass production jobs. As Hawking has warned, in no time robots will be designing and building smarter robots and so on ad infinitum. Then where do we fit in?

Still for the present all seems well at my place where the robot has revolutionized the dreary and tedious work of house keeping. There’s just one thing that still bothers me. While I love his work I’m not sure I like the way LB looks at my wife. I’m sure it was probably just an accident but the other day he almost pushed me down the stairs. Meanwhile I do have a growing concern about the strange noises coming from the vegetable plot.

It’s the ‘iBandicoot Don Burke Gardening Robot’ and I definitely don’t like the way it looks at my wife.

*Charles Wooley is a legend of Australian journalism, partly through his history with Sixty Minutes. His columns on Tasmanian Times are HERE