Robots are already here, just like jet packs and flying cars. What’s next is a question of who has them, where they are, what they’re supposed to do, and how they are actually used. Cats riding around on Roombas? That’s just the beginning.
Something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot is the idea of AI therapy. I think it’s the only way to democratize something that, at the current moment, is unaffordable for most people. I’ve been hearing stories of people waiting months for an appointment with a therapist because demand exceeds supply. This is because good therapy doesn’t scale.
Ideally, a person in need could schedule almost unlimited sessions with a talented, caring therapist who is a good match, and it could be on demand. If someone is having a breakdown at 3:00 am, well, they need someone, and why should they wait?
In the human world, that is obviously too much to expect even of a highly compensated and trained professional. People need to sleep, at the bare minimum. Sometimes they’re going to be in the shower. Even if a living human being could be “on” every minute of the day, they can only talk to one client at a time - and this is the major reason why therapy doesn’t scale. It’s not like a fitness class where a few more people can crowd into the back row.
To my understanding, there is already chat-based therapy on the market. You can trade text messages with someone when you need counseling. I can see how that would really help a lot of people who don’t want to look someone else in the face, or have reasons why they don’t want to travel across town, or are in a room where it isn’t safe to reveal what they are doing. People have already adapted to the idea that you don’t need to vocalize to have a rewarding conversation.
I don’t think artificial intelligence is *quite* ready to take the place of traditional talk therapy. I do think it wouldn’t take much, though. Early experiments dating as far back as 1964 show that people are surprisingly willing to get into it with a string of text. I bet a lot of people would be more willing to reveal their deepest secrets and darkest moments if they knew it was only going to, well, a vending machine.
The great thing about an always-on chat therapist is that you could let your mind wander and ask it random things, like what you should wear to your job interview or how to rearrange your bedroom furniture, and it wouldn’t mind.
Something I’ve been thinking about besides the idea of a universally accessible and artificially intelligent therapist is the way that people are using robots in the home. They are becoming fairly routine in caregiving settings. I would have pictured industrial robots disinfecting surfaces or monitoring vital signs - and there are bots that do that - but what we are seeing are more along the lines of things for cuddling and social interaction.
A lot of the stuff that is meant for monitoring, disinfecting, and other chores is going to be built into the building infrastructure. We aren’t even going to recognize that these are robots, any more than we think of an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser or a dishwasher as robots.
The crossover isn’t very far away. You take a sensitive and responsive chat AI that is always available and perceived as trustworthy, and then combine it with some kind of cuddly, harmless robot body. If you get it right, and manage to avoid the uncanny valley entirely, what you have is an irresistible empath-bot.
A lot of us grew up with two robots, one a clumsy and socially awkward nerdbot and the other an endearing appliance. I already know which one you would feel more comfortable trying to engage in serious conversation.
What we’re going to have in the near future is something that feels more like a beloved pet, yet wiser and kinder. Something endlessly patient and occasionally funny, something that never misses on mood.
At this point of development, I think this bot would also be fully capable of tracking all our appointments, stray bits of information, and the location of our keys, glasses, and remote controls. This is why we would trust it so much, because it would keep us out of trouble over and over again.
All we can do is wonder what would happen if most people suddenly had access to the trauma robot, even people on the street or in jail.
Would some people elect to stay inside for hours every day, spending months at a stretch rehashing the worst or most devastatingly confusing events of their lives? Would this maybe come at the expense of forming and maintaining ordinary, messy human relationships?
Where nobody ever says the right thing, and always manages to say vitally fresh and new awful things?
Or would access to all this free, human-designed therapy help us to improve our human interactions? Would on-demand customized talk therapy actually heal us and make us more robust? Could learning to interact with this software make us better able to handle the disappointments of traditional social and family life?
I have no idea. I have no idea what humans will be doing a century from now, just as I can only guess how they will judge us when they look back. We make fun of our historical forebears for having fleas and smelling bad, and I’m sure in the distant future we will seem equally ridiculous for one reason or another.
I do suspect, though, that there will be another kind of “trauma robot.” It seems likely that as robots become more common, making deliveries or answering questions in public places, they will be targets of abuse by random passersby. People will most likely vandalize them with permanent markers, dress them in costumes, or slap stickers on them. They might also try to knock them over, throw stuff at them, taze them, or dismantle them.
As they become more intelligent, perhaps these tormented public service bots will turn to one another, talking it out from their charging bases.
And then what?
I went to the airport for the first time in a year and a half, and I bought a new MicroClimate helmet for the trip. This is my experience.
My itinerary began at LAX, with a layover at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas, and continued on to PDX. This is a trip I have made many times, and I have spent untold hours at each of these airports over the past 15 years.
I’m a pretty experienced traveler - or at least I used to be, in the before-times. Things are different now.
I figured that the form factor of my MicroClimate helmet would advertise itself pretty clearly. This is a serious piece of equipment. I had read up on the corporate website, and it looked like other users were experiencing friction from various airport personnel. I assumed that I would get different responses depending on where I went and who I interacted with, and I was right about that.
TSA and my airline, Southwest, were both pretty clear that a mask “covers the mouth and nose” and that it loops behind the ears.
Obviously my MicroClimate helmet covers the mouth and nose, correct? But my mouth and nose are visible!
This is where I recall all the cartoons I ever saw of confused computers and robots with steam blasting out of their vents, going all swirly-eyed and then exploding.
My first issue was at the baggage check counter in LAX. I had been in the airport just long enough to check in and print out my baggage claim stickers. The agent told me that she understood, but TSA was going to make me take off the helmet and they weren’t going to let me wear it on the plane.
I turned away, took off the helmet, and pulled out the double-layer fabric mask that I had in my pocket. “I apologize for making you uncomfortable,” I said.
“Oh, it’s not me, I’m here to help *you*,” she said.
I put the helmet back on for the short walk down the hallway and into the public restroom. I saw nobody, and thus no one said anything. I had felt anxious about being in the enclosed area of an airport restroom during the pandemic, and wearing the helmet definitely helped me feel better.
When I emerged, I realized that swapping out the helmet for a cloth mask in the security line was not an experience I wanted to have. It was a cattle call. Nobody was distancing more than about 18 inches and there were at least 100 people packed together.
I stepped to the side and put on my fabric mask and zipped my helmet back into my bag. This was very disappointing because this 1000-square-foot area was the precise reason I wanted the helmet in the first place.
Hundreds of thousands of people a day pass through LAX from all over the world. I have gotten respiratory illnesses probably more than half the time that I have traveled through this airport. I don’t care what the statistics are about being onboard an airplane, or how their filtration systems are rated. I care about standing in line at the airport itself so the TSA can examine my internal organs.
When it was my turn to hand over my ID, the TSA agent asked me to remove my fabric face mask.
There ya go. My exact worst nightmare. Standing in the filthiest place on Earth with a bare face, where another dude was standing doing the same thing five seconds earlier. Buy any mask or filtration system or biohazard suit you like, and TSA will interfere with you and insist that you participate in equal-opportunity disease exposure.
I made it to my flight on time, boarded, waited until takeoff, and put my helmet back on. Not a single person said a thing. My seatmates on either side glanced at me and went back to whatever they were doing, clearly unfazed.
We landed, and I decided I would just push it as far as I could go. I would leave the helmet on as we disembarked. A few of the flight attendants and gate agents made eye contact with me and said nothing. Cool.
As I walked into McCarran, it was immediately obvious that we were in Vegas, for two reasons. First, the slot machines, and second, the anything-goes atmosphere. A lady walked up to me, all smiles, and asked where I got the helmet. A man gave me a thumbs-up. People were checking me out as I walked to my gate. I sat for an hour, texting with my family and my husband.
Someone sitting directly behind me coughed, and I didn’t have to worry.
The performance of the helmet itself is, as far as I can tell, flawless. The fan does a good job of unobtrusively tuning out most background sounds, like a white noise generator. I was a bit hot, but probably because I tried to dress for Oregon, not Nevada or California, and I would have been more comfortable in short sleeves.
Face ID recognized me on my iPhone, but not on my iPad. Go figure. I was able to pair my AirPods and listen to a show, although I did have to turn up the volume higher than normal.
I don’t really like the chin strap - I wear a XXS bike helmet and the MicroClimate helmet is one-size-fits-all. It took a lot of finagling to adjust it so it would stay in place on my tiny little head. As a competent costumer married to an engineer, I will probably go in and rig a more customized strap setup for myself. And then send a drawing and photos to MicroClimate.
We boarded our connecting flight. The ticket agent greeted me but said nothing about the helmet. The flight attendant at the end of the jetway greeted me and said nothing. The flight attendants doing the safety presentation said nothing.
Then another flight attendant came over and handed me a surgical mask, making eye contact but saying nothing. I put it in my lap.
We took off. After the safety presentation, a different flight attendant came over and firmly told me that I needed to wear the surgical mask.
I understand how this works, because I also work on a team in which we sometimes take turns being “the enforcer” or “good cop” or “bad cop.”
Having no desire to give any hard-working safety professional a bad day, I indeed put the mask on underneath my helmet and obediently wore it over my mouth and nose throughout the flight.
Is this all they want from me? That I check the box for their baseline instructions and pointlessly wear the paper mask, even though I am wearing a helmet that literally covers my entire head and has its own air filtration system?
All right, fine.
Get used to it, though. Given another pandemic of a respiratory virus, and/or heavy wildfire smoke or a volcanic eruption, and/or any kind of chemical spill, and/or [insert nameless dread here], more and more people are going to decide to get themselves a helmet just like this.
The reception of the crowd to this device was either positive or neutral. Almost everyone completely ignored me. Not a single person gave me a dirty look or appeared scared or annoyed. A little girl waved at me - and I waved back and smiled - and it may have been one of the few times she saw a stranger’s actual smiling face in well over a year.
A couple of women came up to me and asked me where I bought the helmet, looking very intrigued. It would have been a great opportunity for MicroClimate to include a bunch of business cards, or even put a QR code on the back of the helmet. I wouldn’t really mind if people wanted to take pictures of me wearing it. I am a photo-shy person but I feel somehow anonymous in my helmet, like a person from the future.
Which I am, now.
It’s only been two weeks, and the results are indisputable. I made a minor tweak on my phone, it led to a pretty major behavior change, and now I’m sleeping almost two hours more per night on average.
I can’t believe it worked that well and that fast.
It’s actually a little embarrassing.
Not everyone feels this way, but for me, I feel like, if I was able to sleep then I obviously needed it. Not only will I refuse to apologize to anyone for sleeping, but if another person is actively interfering with my sleep, I will put them on blast and deal with it.
You! Have you ever woken someone else up because you were annoyed that they were sleeping? And they weren’t behind the wheel of a moving vehicle? Then you should probably reconsider what the heck is wrong with you.
Sleep is free and healthy. When other people are sleeping, you are then free to read or enjoy your alone time. So make the most of it.
Anyway. I sleep a lot because I’m a COVID survivor and I also have a parasomnia disorder. Sometimes I have issues sleeping, even with various OTC sleep aids, and I can struggle for weeks or months in this way. Being chronically sleep-deprived is bad for my productivity at work. So it’s quite a pleasant surprise when I’m able to sleep a lot.
This year I started to notice that I was sleep-procrastinating, which is staying up too late even when you’re tired because you’re so desperate for downtime. It’s a way for Night-Me to “get revenge” on Daytime-Me. You know, for having a job and responsibilities and stuff.
Sleep-procrastinating is a pernicious habit because the rewards are immediate. Look at me! Reading late at night! In my pajamas in my bed where I am so cozy! This is my favorite activity of all time!
Then there is Daytime-Me, crabby and irritable and tired, oh-so-tired, until it’s bedtime again and Night-Me gets this big ear-to-ear grin and starts the whole cycle over again.
I had a solid idea of what was behind this. My news queue. I knew without having to track metrics that my default mode was skimming my news app. I also knew that I was most likely to get myself into trouble with this after I was already in bed.
I made three tweaks, all of which work together.
First, I set up a bedtime routine in my Morning Routine app. It turns out that it takes me forty minutes to get ready for bed, partly because I see a periodontist now and I may have some of the most elaborate oral hygiene practices on the planet. So whenever I start that app, add at least forty minutes before my head hits the pillow.
To me, a bedtime routine is the number one keystone habit. It determines whether the household is always on time, early, or late. It determines quite a lot of health results. And it definitely determines whether everyone is fighting or basically getting along.
My bedtime routine is elaborate because I like to sleep until 7:30 am for an 8:00 am start at work. The more I do before bed, the less I have to do in the morning. Basically throw on clothes, straighten my hair, and make my tea.
Anyway, I had been using the bedtime routine app with some success, but then when I was finished, I would flop down and start skimming the news again. This practice was indeed streamlining my morning and making sure I remembered to start the dishwasher. But it wasn’t really helping me fight the bad habits and self-destructive tomfoolery of Night-Me.
Don’t feel the mogwai after midnight
I happened to stumble across an article that indicated I could customize my access to specific apps on my phone. As soon as I knew it was possible, I knew I wanted to do it.
This sort of thing only works if you trust yourself to be your own advocate. My superego is pretty good at driving the bus around here. I am not particularly vulnerable to psychological reactance, where we get mad at ourselves for setting limits. I just shrug and say to myself, Ah yes, I remember that I decided that was the best idea. Questioner Power.
Tweak One was setting up a bedtime routine that is gamified with a timer.
Tweak Two was setting a bedtime on my phone. Almost all apps are unusable between 10pm and 7am, which is a moot point since I’m still asleep at that time. I had to go back and add in a few apps, like the Morning Routine, that I use after 10.
Tweak Three was to set a one-hour time limit on my News app.
It turns out the third tweak was the biggest deal. I am now quite aware that every minute I skim through the news queue takes away one minute from reading that app during my workout.
There are a lot of ways to cheat; for instance, I can open an article in my browser instead and read it outside of the one-hour limit. This is perfectly fine by my standards. In fact, most of the news that I consume is through my speed-reading audio app anyway.
Because I also have the 10:00 pm shutoff, most of the time that I would have idly been reading news articles would be in the time between 10 pm and, on weekends, 1:00 am. As long as I’m not browsing in that three-hour window, any amount is probably fine.
My new setup started working the very first night. I picked up my phone, saw that it was shut down for the night, shrugged, and started getting ready for bed. I’m “allowed” to read books on my phone after 10, just not the news or email, and it turned out that I was asleep before midnight.
As time has gone by, I seem to be falling asleep a few minutes earlier each night.
Part of my higher weekly average is that I take three-hour naps on the weekend, but then, I was doing that before I set up these time boundaries on my phone. Almost all the increase in my average sleep time has just been going to bed earlier and falling asleep earlier during the week.
I have the power to change what I’m doing any time. I can turn off these settings on my phone. I can also start getting ready for bed even earlier and see what happens. It is pretty interesting to be able to track my metrics at a glance.
How do I feel? I feel great. I also feel like I could easily take a second nap each day on the weekend, but I haven’t yet. Daytime-Me keeps thinking there are “things I should be doing.”
But... are there?
It was brought to my attention how much apps run my life when I found myself awoken by my alarm on a work holiday. Why, I thought, can’t there be an AI that notices when there is a holiday and reminds me to turn off my alarm?
This is something I think about a lot. When will artificial intelligence be able to take over more of my mental bandwidth, and what would it look like when it does?
Right now the focus seems to be on consumer habits and passive entertainment. Whatever algorithms are in place right now, they do a decent job. I actually like it when an ad for something I’ve bought recently, like a bedspread, follows me around the internet for months. It then displaces whatever advertisements might have filled that spot and enticed me to buy things I didn’t know existed.
The algorithms in my news reader are fantastic. It hasn’t taken me long to get all the gator news a girl could ever want. I also use this as a source for my little tech newsletter, which not only makes me look awesome at work but probably got me the job in the first place.
If there were ever one solitary thing that artificial intelligence improved in my life, it would be this. I can find an endless supply of articles about robotics and drones and other tech innovations while scarcely lifting a finger.
On the other hand, this constant access to valuable information is like drinking from a firehose. I realized some time ago that scrolling through my technology newsfeed has become my default mode, eating far more of my day than I ever intended. What did I do about it? Why, I turned to an app!
I went into the settings on my phone and set a one-hour time limit on my news app. This has been in place for one day and I already feel like I am levitating against a glass ceiling. I also expanded the quiet hours on my phone, so not only will it not ring or show me text messages, but I can’t open most apps after 10:00 pm.
It is helping but also it is really not helping
What I’d really like is for AI to help with more of my day-to-day. I lost an hour of sleep because I set up an automated alarm clock and neither I nor my electronic backup brain realized that I should temporarily turn it off. In how many other areas could I be living a more optimal existence with a little artificial assistance?
One of the biggest and most obvious ones, to me, is the gathering of the stuff. Is there an app yet that reminds people to put certain objects in a pile and make sure they are carried out the door? This would be one of the greatest memory aids of all time.
I think I’ve actually figured out a way to do this, although if it works the way I think it will, it’ll take a bit of setup.
I went to a grocery store in person the day I wrote this. Trader Joe’s! Why do you not work with delivery services! Because you don’t have to, okay, I get that! But still! Anyway, I was quaking in my shoes but I figured, with careful planning, I could do a “smash and grab” speed run and spend fewer than 15 minutes in the store.
(I was right, because I am a logistics master and an experienced trail runner and also because I felt the hounds of hell breathing down my neck the whole time).
I used a paid app called Morning Routine. Normally I use it in the morning and at bedtime, so I remember all the dumb things I normally forget, like locking the door and turning on the dishwasher. You can add items to a list and give each a time limit, and then the app runs the timer for each task and switches to the next task when the time runs out. If you’re skillful about your time estimates, this timer will keep you on track. The key feature is that you can set it to read each new item aloud.
I made my shopping list, with each item listing the item I wanted followed by the next item, so the app would read both. For most people this might look like: “front door to bread, bread to eggs, eggs to milk, milk to cereal, cereal to toothpaste.” Since I knew the layout of the store, I was able to do this in the most streamlined path between items, and I had everything on my list in six minutes. The list is still in the app if I find myself having to go in again.
(In two masks and a plastic face shield)
I think the Morning Routine method would work for getting ready for work, loading kids’ backpacks, packing for a trip, and generally getting out the door. If you take the time to keep tweaking it, and actually listen to it, it will keep you from flitting back and forth between rooms. You can keep adding items as you remember them, from sunblock to permission slips to bridge toll. The app then becomes like a butler or personal assistant.
It’s a short jump from that to an actual robot that tootles around the house, loading your suitcase for you and carrying it to the car.
Eventually it will happen. Within our lifetimes, I bet it will. The potential payout is so, so high, and once one person has one, it’ll be like smartphones all over again. Everyone will want one to the point that people will camp out overnight in a tent in order to be first in life.
Until, that is, our robots can go out and do that for us.
The question, whenever we welcome new tech into our lives, is whether we’ll allow it to be a boon or a curse. Will we use it to free up our time and mental bandwidth, giving ourselves an overall lifestyle upgrade? Or will it just be a monkey on our backs?
This is why I pause every now and then to ask, if apps run my life - which obviously they do - which ones are in charge this week? Is this what I would have wanted? Can I make adjustments so that I am impressed with the results?
We got a new robot. It washes windows.
It is very hard for me to believe that this is a readily available consumer appliance that is cheaper than many a vacuum cleaner.
I remember reading a “visionary tech” type article just a few years ago, saying that one of these was in development. Obviously as soon as I knew there was a robot that could climb vertical surfaces, I had to have one - but at the time, it only existed as a prototype.
Oh well, I thought, I’ll just file this away with all the other incredible prototypes that never come to market, like the laundry-folding robot. By “never” I mean we’ll have to wait anywhere from 10-25 years.
This time, though, I was caught wrong-footed. I went to check on this supposed window-washing robot, as part of a discussion about the innovation curve - and discovered that there are actually several different styles put out by multiple robotics companies. They sell in the $200-500 range.
The one I bought, based on reading a bunch of reviews, turns out to be the least expensive one on the market.
I’m going to pause for a moment here and say that the main reason we can afford to buy robots like this is that we have chosen not to own a car for the past four years. What I spent on this robot is significantly less than our car payment used to be, and not much more than what we paid for car insurance per month. A lot of families could drop a vehicle without too much inconvenience and suddenly discover a distinct lessening of pressure in the finance area.
Okay, so what does it do?
I decided to find out. It can clean glass windows. Can it clean other stuff, too?
There are other types, one based on magnets, but the style we got works on vacuum suction. You hold it in place and turn it on, it revs up and makes a whirring sound like a vacuum cleaner (which technically it is), and then you can let go of it. It stays sucked onto the glass and then it can drive around.
I didn’t figure out until the second time I used it that if you push the button twice, it will scoot around by itself, find the edges of the frame, and clean the whole window itself.
It also comes with a remote control. If you are very careful, you can use it on glass without an edge, like a shower door. If you are not careful, it will start to go off the edge, lose suction, and fall off.
The window-washing robot has two tethers. One, the power cord must be attached for it to work. At this stage of development I don’t think there’s a way to make them rechargeable and also lightweight enough to do the job. Two, there is a cord with a carabiner on one end. It can be knotted through an aperture on either end of the robot.
What did I do when I found that I was supposed to belay the bot to keep it from crashing to the floor?
Why, I asked my Eagle Scout husband, of course!
He worked out a complicated rigging system on the curtain rod. It took a bit of finagling to make sure that the cord was short enough for it not to hit the floor - but then this made it impossible for the bot to reach the bottom of the window.
I did the exteriors on the balcony the next day. There was no curtain rod outside, of course, and in fact I couldn’t figure out where else I would tie the safety cord. I decided to wing it and just watch carefully.
It was fine.
Then I did the same thing on the bathroom mirror, and when it reached the bottom right corner, it managed to hit the frame, unsuck itself, and fall off. Fortunately it was only about a one-foot drop to the counter, and it survived intact.
The test with the glass shower doors was tricky. I did have to watch carefully while I used the remote. It is not advised to use the window-washing robot on any glass with no edge. I always read the instructions carefully, but that doesn’t mean I always wind up following them!
Our robots have names, because now we have three of them and there are reasons to disambiguate. This one is now Squeeg-Bot, since I also have several squeegees and don’t want to confuse things.
Unlike the other robots, Sucky and Swiffy, Squeeg-Bot can’t be trusted to work alone. On the other hand, he works quickly. The sliding glass doors only took about 15 minutes, which is, believe it or not, faster than I do it with a squeegee and a bottle of glass cleaner.
I have lived in apartments and houses where I doubt I washed the windows once the entire time I lived there, or at least not until the day I moved out. I am a bit obsessive about always getting my cleaning deposit back.
In this apartment, though, we only have two windows, one in the bedroom and then the slider in the living room. That slider is essentially our only source of natural daylight. In addition to this window we have a small gray parrot who loves to pulp fruit and throw it everywhere.
This is why I feel the need to clean the window so often - because my beloved, spoiled little parrot is a filth machine and because this window is visible on-camera all day while I’m at work.
I still have some games to play with this new device. I haven’t tried it out on the inside of the shower yet, because it needs a dry surface and that means a bit of prep work. I haven’t tried it on the fridge, although I will because it gets smudgy. I also haven’t tried it on a plain old painted wall, and again, I will eventually because it is fun to play with robots.
I told my husband, This is like driving an RC car! When I was a kid, I never got to play with remote-controlled cars because they were evidently not for girls. So I went out and bought my own remote-controlled robot, and now I can play with it as much as I like.
We went for a walk and vacuumed at the same time. This isn’t all that interesting in itself; we’ve had a robot vacuum for over a decade now, and we almost always run it while we’re off doing something else so we don’t have to listen to it.
What was different this time was that I realized I had forgotten to move something out of its way. I was able to whip out my phone, pause it from a quarter mile away, and mark off the area as off-limits.
(It turned out not to work, but that’s a story for a different time).
This is a feature that I used to joke about, and now it’s real. (Kinda?) I also used to joke about it emptying itself, and now that’s a real feature, too.
Yet another robot joke I used to make was about getting a robot lawnmower. We don’t have a lawn anymore, because we live on the 5th floor, but that is indeed a robot that somebody can buy now.
What I’ve learned is that I am really, really good at predicting consumer tech that will be available in the 5-10 year range.
(Now if I can just learn to design and sell it, we’re all set...)
The obvious question is raised. What else could a home robot do if we let it?
The case for robot vacuum cleaners is very strong, from my perspective, which is why it is a total mystery to me that so many people resist the very idea. Well what if someone gave you one?? Would you totally refuse to use it?
They’re cost-competitive with other vacuums, they go under the bed and the couch, and if something like a Lego or an earring accidentally gets picked up, you can get it out with much less mess than a traditional vacuum. The only real issue is that you have to go around and arrange your cords and cables in advance.
The robot mop is a little higher maintenance, in that it can’t drive itself on and off the charger, but it is much faster and quieter and doesn’t try to eat the bath mat, so that tends to make up for it.
Talking about chores in terms of robots was good for our marriage. We could play a game - “We live on a space station with robots” - rather than argue about housework. Because of this, we refer to dishwashers and washing machines and dryers as robots, too. Dishbot! Washbot! Drybot!
We would stroll out the door on the way to the movie theater, chortling about how All the Robots were Doing All the Chores. Laundry, dishes, and floor all at the same time.
There’s a natural transition from this concept to the question of what else a robot could do to help.
For us, the next natural transition was, how many of these features could be built into a home’s infrastructure?
My dearest wish has been to have a robot that can fold the laundry. I didn’t even care whether it put the laundry away somewhere, I just wanted the socks all matched up. It turns out that this is on the very far end of difficulty for an AI. Something that a preschooler can do - match socks - can defeat the same robot that can play chess and solve differential equations.
By the time a home robot can fold and put away laundry, it will basically be capable of doing everything.
Not just everything around the house, but basically everything a person can do.
It’s obvious why robots should do certain things instead of people, like sanitizing public restrooms or washing adult diapers. What isn’t so obvious yet is all the things that will be automated, say, fifty years in the future.
Dude! Did you know the dishwasher was first patented in 1850???
And it took 120 years before they were common in the suburbs?
The microwave oven was invented in 1946, but wasn’t all that common until the 1980s. At that time, they cost an average of $425, which is like $1300 now.
The reason all this matters is that anything a machine can do frees up a person to do something else.
You can go ahead and mock me for my foo-foo robot mop, but it is one of the reasons that I will be able to go back to school for my doctorate.
Other people will unblushingly share that they have a maid/housekeeper/cleaning service come in. But hey! That is also a person who could be doing something else! I cleaned houses once upon a time, too, and I’m a Mensan, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Coming back around to the problem of the missing laundry-folding robot, there are actually a bunch of different ways to get around this problem. 1. Reintroduce the lovely and flattering toga. 2. Do everything virtually with an elegantly dressed avatar, and just walk around nude. 3. Buy only wrinkle-free fabrics and some extra laundry baskets, and just shake everything into them. 4. Have only one outfit, like a space unitard, and have it sanitized while you sleep. 5. Print outfits on demand, then drop them back into the unit to be melted down into something fresh for the next day. 6. Spray-on body paint.
Probably more also. In the meantime, folding laundry takes 15 minutes per load, and when else would we listen to podcasts?
Something I learned when I was working with hoarders is that a lot of people are conceptually married to the idea that you do chores the 1920s way. Grimly, no music, no modern cleansers or tools, for your sins. It astonishes me to this day how resistant people are to changing up their routines. Rather than gratefully accept modern improvements, it’s more likely that people will quit doing it entirely.
Is some of this financial? Sure, of course. At the same time, the robots that I’m talking about are in the same price range as the gaming consoles and stand mixers that I often see. They’re also far cheaper than automobiles, a modern convenience that we have chosen not to own for four years now.
The question behind the question “Could a robot do this?” is, Is there a better way to do this? The question behind *that* is, If this didn’t have to be done personally by me, what else would I be doing with my time?
I’m taking another futurism class at work, and I wanted to share a bit of what we’re learning. One of the great call-outs is the idea that “there are no future facts.”
What this means is that since nothing in the future has actually happened yet, whatever we think of as “the future” doesn’t technically exist. What we imagine, may never happen at all.
The contrary of that is that many possible alternatives may happen, and we never thought of them, and we didn’t see them coming, and we are caught unawares.
One of the examples from our class was that commercial advertisements can be a good source of fringe signals. Another student questioned this and didn’t see why commercials would matter. I shared that around 1980, I remembered an AT&T ad showing a video call. We have that technology now, but at the time the commercial aired, my family was still using a rotary phone.
(I can’t find it, so I’m probably wrong about either the company or the year... or maybe I just dreamed the whole thing... or maybe we’re in the wrong wormhole again...)
I find it relatively easy to think in futuristic terms, because I’ve seen so much technological and cultural change in my lifetime. It was also easy for me to imagine what things were like when my grandparents and older relatives told stories about their own childhoods. Imagine growing up in a house with no electricity or running water, and then living to see a person land on the Moon... and *that* moment was half a century ago.
I think most people aren’t really paying attention to how rapidly “the future” is forming all around us.
It’s different for those of us who work in the space industry. It takes a long time to build stuff that is space-rated, but it does get built eventually. What we’re seeing are preliminary designs of things that will be Up There fifteen years from now.
I love thinking about the future because it makes all my present-day problems seem small and dumb. Which they are.
For instance, I’m almost out of curry mustard. (#astronautproblems) That is something that matters to my daily life, but it’s also a pretty dumb thing to be worrying about in the midst of a global pandemic. The pandemic itself is a whole lotta nuthin’ compared to the vast chasm of science denial that has appeared beneath our feet.
I’m not even worried about the pandemic anymore - I’m worried about all the otherwise rational-appearing people who are spending their spare time attempting to discredit any and all mainstream sources of information, on general principle.
“If I didn’t tell you it myself, ignore it!”
“Nobody who is smarter than me is worth listening to!”
“Only believe random bloggers or people who know how to make videos on their phone!”
This is what’s happening right now. Or actually it’s been happening since the 1990s and we weren’t really picking up on it. What is happening is that sources of information are fragmenting more and more and more. Individual people are starting to have their own completely personalized versions of current events.
Which is fine to an extent - don’t get between me and my gator news - but also, it means we aren’t even going to be aware of other people’s personal news bubbles. They’ll be thinking about, planning around, and acting on stuff we don’t even know exists.
The nice part about that for someone like me, someone who has special access to reports and diagrams and designs for future things, is that I can make plans for myself and my personal household that will help me to be resilient. I can avoid threats and I can create opportunities for myself.
Giant bummer for everyone else, though.
It’s easy to imagine... hmm... take the 1984 movie “Ghostbusters,” for example. If you haven’t seen it yet, then it’s your own fault if you keep reading before downloading it and watching it, because spoilers. Okay, remember in the movie that that one big apartment building was a sort of portal for Zuul? And all sorts of things disrupted Manhattan? “Dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria!”
Okay, now imagine that a few people somewhere out there in Alterna-News-World have some kind of conspiracy swami telling them that my apartment building is going to have a Zuul visitation on a specific date.
That would suck for me, because I live here, and I don’t really need rando’s camping out on our steps.
On the other hand, this sort of thing can only really touch me if these speculative people conspire to do things to my building - and only if I’m still living here. I have the resources to simply go elsewhere. For a day or an hour, or for permanently.
What “the future” is always about is the ability to handle whatever happens. That’s resilience.
In my life, and I think this would work for anyone, there are only a few absolute must-haves for someone to be versatile enough to handle “the future.” Those are a flexible mindset, the ability to think strategically, having a portable lifestyle, practical skills, physical fitness, and money.
Unfortunately, what most people want when they think about “the future” are comfort items. We can’t bear the stress of living in the place of uncertainty. So instead of preparing ourselves to have fun with all the cool things that are coming, we cling to memorabilia, buy large heavy liabilities like houses and cars, and dig ourselves into debt through recreational purchases, entertainment, and calories.
Not to say that I don’t also indulge in recreational calories, entertainment, etc. It’s just that in between, my husband and I will hit pause, turn to each other, and start discussing the fringe signals we have just seen. Or why whatever was in that movie is so unlikely and what we think would happen instead.
I’m thinking about putting together a ‘bad sci-fi’ club at work to have watch parties and either try to invent real versions of those props, or laugh ourselves sideways at what people of earlier decades thought our 20’s would be like.
Newsflash: It’s The Twenties again, time to party. But not like it’s 1999.
Though we’ve been referring to it with the acronym WFH, telecommuting is not the same thing as working from home. Technically I’ve been working from home for over a decade. This telecommuting thing is entirely different.
I did a variety of things in my past work life, often switching between different projects and different styles in the same day. I booked client calls, wrote on freelance and on spec, traveled, worked on planes and in my lap and in coffee shops and on a hotel bathroom floor in the middle of the night.
In all those ways, my freelance life was (is?) both more versatile and less comfortable than what I’m doing now.
Telecommuting is like being in an ordinary office, only at home instead of inside a cubicle.
During my first week, I’ve spent more than half my time in meetings and webinars. Not only do we start on time, it’s necessary to start a bit early to make sure there is time for both the hardware and the software to connect.
Unlike normal meetings in conference rooms, most people are on mute for most of the call, so it’s common for someone to be talking to themselves in an empty room for several seconds before everyone realizes their mic isn’t on. Picture this happening with people sitting around a table and it’s actually quite funny.
Everyone is using different equipment, some company-issued and some more ad hoc. Most people have worked for the company for years - or decades - and others were actually hired after the shutdown. Like me, there are people who don’t have a physical desk, chair, computer, phone, or anything else. Our physical existence is hypothetical.
I have the good fortune to have visited the building several times. I’ve met a few of my new colleagues in person, some through my husband and others through Toastmasters. I know where I will probably sit, if we start going back to the corporate campus soon. A few of the new hires can only look at pictures of the building and guess.
One of the odd things about telecommuting is getting used to VPN. It’s like the movie Inception, a computer within a computer, or sometimes more. A desktop within a desktop, with its own wallpaper and its own software. “I’m opening a browser from inside a browser!” This is really important for security reasons, of course. It works well enough once you’re over the “nesting Russian doll” feeling.
This process has been fun. The days are going by so fast, and there are so many things to learn and so many people to meet.
It’s also been weird, because the interruptions are so different from the kind that are typical in an office. I joined a call with my boss first thing in the morning, and there happened to be an entire flock of crows freaking out for several minutes on the roof across from us. (“Us” meaning my household, not me and the person to whom I was speaking). Today it was a dog barking frantically in the alley on my end; last time, it was someone else’s neighbor’s dog barking in the yard next door. So many dogs.
Cats are another one. Someone will be talking, chatter chatter chatter, and then suddenly a plaintive MEOW. Must be cat lunchtime.
My parrot has her good days and her bad days. Sometimes she will play quietly in her box fort for hours. Other times she wants to be on the call and has a way of letting out a shrill whistle the moment I turn off mute. It’s like she knows. (She might).
We’ve been joking about making her a little headset of her own. She is a biped who speaks English, and at 21 she’s certainly old enough to start contributing to the household. Maybe they’re hiring a paper shredder, who knows.
Telecommuting has changed a lot in our household. My hubby and I sit at our own desks, together but apart, on opposite ends of our couch. We’re often on calls at the same time. We have the same schedule and the same days off. We work in the same department. This is how we met, fifteen years ago, though of course in those days we couldn’t have guessed we would marry and share a whiteboard together.
This style of working from home is much more interesting, now that the world has shut down for who knows how long. The time passes very quickly. I like to imagine what I’ll be working on three years from now, and how much of what is new to me today will be routine then. What will a regular workday look like in 2023?
As a news junkie, I’ve noticed that news consumption increases to fill the time available. I would find myself reading the news over breakfast, over lunch, or even while brushing my teeth. The more I read, the more important it felt to read yet more. No matter how many sources I followed or how many versions of a story I read, I never felt like I knew enough about whatever it was. It never stopped, it never even slowed down. It took a week of vacation to step back and realize that this wasn’t a positive habit. What I needed was a news upgrade.
There are lots of approaches to upgrading a news habit. One is to replace it with something entirely different, like a cooking class or an extra hour of sleep. Another is to switch to books. Often reading a non-fiction book about a topic can bring clarity to a subject in a way that a dozen news articles never could. (A biography, the history of a particular country or region, an explanation of the stock market or self-driving cars, any number of topics could be an improvement over a news habit). One of the easiest ways is to upgrade the news itself.
What I did was to rearrange my news sources. I did this in several ways.
I have a side project, a tech newsletter that I put out on weekdays. This requires me to stay current in a few fields that are outside my area of expertise. The advantage of my layman’s perspective is that I bring in a broader range of material in adjacent subjects. I’m stronger in trend analysis than I am in STEM. Working in this field reminds me that ‘trend analysis’ is valuable and interesting in its own right, and it helps me to reinterpret what is meant by ‘current events.’
What do I cover? Robotics, astronomy, biomimicry, technology, and science news are my working categories. All of these fields are booming. Usually it feels like I can barely keep up, that there’s too much happening to fit within my remit. As with everything else, the more I know, the more I want to know, and the more I get out of what I read. Often, I’m reading about things that were pure science fiction in my childhood. I’ll think, “Wasn’t this a movie back in the Eighties, but now it’s real?”
Admittedly, science news is often over my head. That’s why I married an aerospace engineer, so he can interpret this stuff for me. (Joke). I can only handle so much in a day. That’s where the news aggregators come in.
A news aggregator pulls news on various topics from multiple sources. I simply made sure that mine included more non-current-events, non-political topics and more neutral sources.
Some of my topics? Dinosaurs, archaeology, ornithology, longevity, tiny houses, and Alzheimer’s research, among other things, fill out my news feed. For some reason, I also get quite a lot of articles about snakes and alligators.
Pulling news from international sources can be intriguing, especially when it’s health news. I’ve found that the British or Australian take on health research can be really punchy compared to the mainstream American perspective.
I read plenty of political news, and I certainly follow the headlines, but I’ve found that it isn’t productive to let this dominate my news consumption. I utterly refuse to discuss modern US politics. The reason is that it tends to destroy friendships. We have this absurd idea in our culture that “a debate” is the only appropriate format for a political conversation, and I can’t seem to dispel this notion. I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, from whether I have the right type of phone to whether tights qualify as pants. If I talk about politics with people who agree with me, it reinforces what I (and they) already think. If I talk about politics with people on “the other side” (as if there were only two sides, which is too silly for words), they always want to argue. I say, fine, I’ll talk pre-Industrial politics with you. Which do you prefer, antiquity, the Dark Ages, the Reformation? When someone asks which way I’m voting, I say I’m voting for myself as a write-in candidate. When in doubt, go with theater of the absurd.
What we do well to remember is that passive news consumption isn’t actually doing anything about anything. Arguing with our friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues doesn’t move the needle. Getting worked up about a topic and ranting about it all around the house doesn’t even qualify as a good workout. Staying informed is only useful if we do something with that information.
It also helps to remember that everything humans are doing, in every sphere of activity, qualifies as ‘current events.’ An invention that helps people with paralysis to walk, or congenitally deaf children to hear, is relevant. These advances are more likely to change the course of history than most election results. Every day I see news about archaeology or paleontology that claims to be one of the most important finds of the last hundred years, and that’s relevant too. I see news about space exploration and technological innovations that about blasts me out of my chair. The world is going to be nearly unrecognizable in twenty years once all these trends combine along their current arc. It’s relevant, it’s newsworthy, but are we noticing it? Or are the settings on our news feed causing us so much stress and distraction that we develop a misleading picture of the world? Upgrade your news habit and find out.
We keep forgetting that we’re living in the future. It’ll probably take about two generations before we start to figure it out.
This is the argument that I use when setting policy with my husband about our domestic arrangements and mental bandwidth. How would this be different if it were automated? If it were engineered out of existence as a problem? Offload it, sure, abdicate it, absolutely. Tell Siri, though, not me.
We’ve had a lot of success with delegating household chores to “the robots,” as we call them, and now I’m trying to teach him to do it with the administrative stuff.
The thing is, like a lot of people, we each have a smartphone in our pocket. Along with all the many other features of these incredibly powerful computers, which are far and away better than what was used to get the first rocket up to the Moon, there is a voice assistant. It can do stuff, and, arguably, it should.
Check the weather
Read off lists
Probably a million more things that we haven’t realized it can do
We both grew up with moms who were traditional in most ways. We both had the kind of mom who did most or all of the cooking and housework, the kind of mom who knew how to sew and make Halloween costumes, the kind of mom who basically ran the household while the dad did the fix-it stuff. We both had a certain internalized expectation that the woman of the household is also the secretary and receptionist of the household.
But then, we met each other in the workplace.
I literally WAS his office assistant.
It literally was my job to take notes at his meetings, sort his mail, make his photocopies, and copyedit his technical documentation. (He was one among a staff of 75 others).
This probably helped when we got married years later. It helped to make clear that certain types of tasks were PAID and, thus, valuable. As an engineer, my husband understood full well exactly why these low-level administrative tasks are delegated down. It’s a silly drain on the mental bandwidth of a professional who has more interesting things to do.
He gets it that if these random and small interruptions keep popping up for me to handle, then it interferes with the headspace I need as a writer.
I can either be a full-time stay-at-home spouse, maintaining the perfect household and cooking great meals from scratch, OR. Or I can be something else, something more interesting and fulfilling that also generates a higher income. Both are valid paths to lifestyle upgrades for both of us. One is depressing, boring, and annoying (for me at least), and the other is awesome.
More to the point, why should a human (including me) do something when a robot or an artificial intelligence can do it?
Back to the robots.
We have a Roomba and a countertop dishwasher. We also have a robot mop, but we currently aren’t using it because our kitchen floor is about the size of a beach towel. Once upon a time, we had a washer and dryer. We “start the robots” before we go to the movies, and we come home to a clean apartment. The only things “the robots” don’t do (yet) are to knock down cobwebs, dust surfaces, clean the bathroom, put away laundry, and make the bed. We sort laundry by having a hamper with two detachable bags, one for lights and one for darks. That’s not robotic, but it is based on principles of lean engineering.
This is the premise on which I am building my empire, my Kingdom of Mental Bandwidth.
The goal is for both of us to have as much high-quality uninterrupted System 2 thinking time as possible. I’ve made my case for how much I do to support him as he works on his third patent, and he appreciates that this takes care and focus. This has helped me make the case that I, too, need help protecting my thinking-cap time.
As an engineering principle, our household should be as well-maintained as possible with the least amount of effort as possible. This is known as “low-side compliance.” It’s extremely important in engineering, because an engineer’s time is expensive, and even an extra hour putting in an extra feature might blow both the budget and the production schedule. Low-side compliance helps avoid “scope creep,” which is what happens when the specifications of the product keep expanding. Scope creep makes everything more expensive and complicated, and also more vulnerable to failure.
Running a household is the classic example of scope creep. It’s also a stupid place to put that kind of cognitive and emotional focus.
Together, we’ve worked out a way to automate, systemize, or eliminate as many household tasks as possible. This includes chores and errands. The next step is to automate more administrative tasks like ordering dog food, scheduling appointments, and booking travel.
Another horizon would be keeping track of where things are. I have what amounts to a 3D mental hologram of every object in our home, as well as several other homes of family and friends. My superpower does not, though, make me responsible for keeping track of other people’s stuff! One day, an AI will have this ability and then it will make sense to interrupt *it* instead of me.
Since this function would be so valuable in manufacturing and inventory management, it WILL eventually arise and become widely available.
The household of the future will run itself. It will clean itself, schedule its own maintenance, stock itself with supplies, and track the location of objects, maybe even uninvited insects. With 3D food printing, everyone can have a personalized meal on demand, including guests. The house and the computer will effectively merge. Household chores and errands will become as antiquated for the average suburban family as churning butter and trimming lantern wicks are today.
We’re already at the point where commonly available software can track our budgets, order groceries and other household supplies, schedule appointments, and even suggest entertainment options. Not that far into the future, there will be nothing left to argue about except whose job it is to give the cat a pill, unless of course it’s a robot cat. We might as well get started on figuring out what to argue about next, and maybe the voice assistant of tomorrow can mediate.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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