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I don’t really mind vacuuming. It’s not my least favorite chore, but if I can spend less time doing it, why the hell not? Enter autonomous robotic vacuum cleaners.

I’ve been using a Roomba 980 — iRobot‘s top-of-the-line automatic vacuum cleaner — for a few months now, and I must say my experience is full of mixed feelings. The fact that the Roomba lets you multitask while vacuuming is wonderful. The fact that you can’t leave the thing unattended is maddening.

The Roomba 900 series is the first to offer a mobile app. In theory, that means you don’t even have to be home to vacuum. And yet, even though the feature is there on paper, in practice it’s not going to happen.

Let me walk you through a few scenarios I’ve experienced with the latest and greatest Roomba:


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  • It knows how to untangle itself from cables, or avoid getting tangled in the first place. That said, it can also very capably unplug a cable from the wall. Or it can untangle itself from a cable and then immediately go right back and get stuck in it again. This includes the cable for its own charging dock.
  • It’s petrified of stairs. That means it knows it can’t clean stairs, and also means it knows how not to destroy itself unnecessarily.
  • It will pick up loose items on the ground and drag them all around the house, thoroughly cleaning away.
  • It sometimes will abort its cleaning mission under the bed. It does not return to dock, it just spits out a nonsensical error message, which roughly translates to “please dive under the bed and rescue me.”
  • It’s capable of accidentally closing a door on itself, rigidly cleaning the newly enclosed area, and then of course not being able to open the door.

In short, I’m simply not comfortable turning my Roomba on when I’m not home. Even if I spent a good chunk of time setting up my house specifically for cleaning, I still can’t trust the Roomba won’t screw itself over.

Let me be crystal clear: AI is not an easy technology to perfect, whether it’s for a digital assistant, a spaceship, or a vacuum cleaner. Automatically cleaning the floors of a house is not a simple problem to solve like automatically cleaning dishes is.

I’m very pleased at how thoroughly my Roomba vacuums my place, the fact it has never broken anything, and overall how little maintenance it requires. I also love it detects when you pick it up — you can put it in a new space, it will happily clean everything in that area, and then return to the exact spot you placed it in.

I won’t leave my Roomba unattended, and yet I’m never going back to traditional vacuum cleaners. It’s still too early to shout from the rooftops that robotic vacuum cleaners have arrived — iRobot has plenty of work to do — but I’m eager to see what the company does next.

I can’t wait for the next model, and then its successor, and then the one after that…

ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.

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