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WOSTER: Living in the tech age

For Christmas, we received a little saucer-shaped robot that vacuums the floors all by itself, and I find I'm having adjustment issues.

We, Nancy and I, aren't people who surround ourselves with "smart'' devices. The vacuum cleaner is an unusual addition to the home in that regard. I know some folks load up on smart devices. A year ago, I wrote a package of stories about the future of smart homes for the rural electric associations, and I was amazed at how many devices can be controlled over the internet, remotely, from a phone.

We're behind the times. Our home lacks a system to lock doors and pre-heat the oven and lower the volume on the sound system. The only thing we have that connects to the internet is the furnace thermostat. Our coffee maker comes on automatically in the morning if it's set properly, but that's not the same as a smart device.

I like the idea of the floors being cleaned with no input from me or Nancy. Our aging backs shriek when we're pushing a traditional, upright, you-drive-it, vacuum cleaner. Growing older hasn't reduced the dirt, dust, food crumbs and other litter that shows up on our floors during the course of a day. It has just made picking up more of a chore.

So the kids pitched in and bought Robbie. That's what our youngest granddaughter named the magic cleaning saucer when her grandma opened the gift on Christmas Eve. Robbie. Nancy has adjusted to the name. She sometimes talks to the little bundle of whisking as it wanders the room, caroming off chair legs, sliding under cabinets and tidying corners. She asks Robbie if he is boxed in under the dining room table and whether he will go back and finish the kitchen floor.

I'm uncomfortable talking with machinery. I sometimes shouted at the cultivator or the milk cow, but that was a different, low-tech time. Robbie doesn't mind my silence. He goes about his business. When he decides the work is done for the moment, he rubs his palms together (figuratively) and heads over to a docking station in the corner, where he backs in, locks on and recharges, ready for the next call to duty.

As I said, I don't mind him doing the work. Just yesterday, as we talked in the living room and Robbie puttered around, I found that I'd unconsciously lifted my legs to let him pass under me, just as I'd have done if Nancy had been pushing a normal vacuum around my chair. Clearly, I'm okay with the device roaming the house by itself, especially if it means we can sit and talk. It makes less noise than the upright vacuum that stands in the closet off the hallway, waiting (patiently, I'd like to think) for its turn at the debris on the floors.

But last evening, when I was turning off lights and checking door locks before heading upstairs to bed, I saw the robot over in the corner, its blue light blinking as if it were watching every move I made. I'd just read a scientific article on robots and artificial intelligence and the end of humans. While the thing didn't move as I climbed the stairs, the blue light blinked and blinked. How do I know that, the moment I reached the bedroom and crawled into bed, Robbie didn't disengage from the docking station and wander all over the first floor? Maybe the little guy got into the soup on the bottom shelf of the corner cupboard or rummaged through the fruit drawer in the refrigerator. Lying in the dark, I pictured the saucer going through our magazine bin by the recliner, trying to reach the TV controls on the coffee table, even stretching for the lock on the patio door. I considered getting out of bed and going down to check, but I wasn't sure I wanted to know what I might find, and I didn't have a baseball bat.

I guess we'd know if Robbie and the furnace thermostat started conspiring to freeze us or boil us out. Would we know in time, though?