Helen & Her Friends

I was texting with my dad and when I asked him what was going on, he said Helen was doing the floors. What good news, I thought, my dad finally has a housekeeper. I imagined Helen in his house swabbing the kitchen counters, dusting the shelves, and cleaning water spots off the bathroom mirror. But that turned out to be flash fiction. Helen is my dad’s robotic vacuum cleaner. Yes, he named his Roomba. She’s small enough to get under the bed, but dumb enough to bounce off the bathroom walls until she is redirected to the hall and finds her way back to the livingroom where she sometimes vacuums the same patch of carpet for a half hour until she’s redirected again. 

Billie Best writes about smart appliances.

If you’re worried about robots taking over the world, here’s a clickbait story to put those fears in perspective. A family had their Helen programmed to vacuum the house in the middle of the night while they slept. Sadly, their dog had pooped on the rug and unsupervised Helen dutifully twirled her rollers through the pile and smeared poo throughout the house. Imagine waking up to that. It’s only funny because it’s not your house. Moral of the story: robots are not as smart as we’re led to believe. 

Of course, Helen will blithely push pudding around the room because she has no idea what she’s doing. She doesn’t know she’s cleaning. She doesn’t know what cleaning is. She does not ponder the meaning of work, or fret about efficiency. She has no desire for status. Her ego is not fluffed by her achievements, or the size of her paycheck. She has no family, no tribe, no possessions, no worries. She does not yearn for love, she will not cheat on you, and she does not fear death. This might make her the perfect housekeeper until you remember that she does not bathe. Yes, it’s possible Helen may stink to high heaven and never know it. Still, we anthropomorphize her.

Context is what Helen lacks. You and I are physically located in time and space, we know the calendar and the clock, and we have plans. Helen may have a map and a timer, but she has no ambition, she skips breakfast, and if you never take her out of the box she simply doesn’t exist. We humans have an identity based on biology. We feel emotions. Helen is a chip and a battery on wheels with a motor that sucks your mess into a little plastic box. She has no regrets. Our brain chemistry manages the memories that influence our behavior. Helen’s favorite memory is the perimeter of your floor plan. And yet, we’ve assigned her a gender. 

Helen and her friends, our smart appliances, are stylish digital servants on their way to becoming more like our pets. We want them. They map our lives, track our behavior, and suck up our data. In exchange for this, we feed them electricity. Soon our refrigerators will plan meals and order groceries. Our cars will chauffeur us while we nap. Our house will recognize our voice. Our chatbot will ask us how our day went. Our bed will know our body. And slowly we’ll obsolete ourselves from our own homes until one day the video camera beside the front door will look at us, and a voice inside will say, Sorry, we won’t be needing you anymore. 

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