All through the fall my head was spinning, and I steered into the spin by watching Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.
Errol Morris’ rhapsodic 1997 documentary about a bunch of monomaniacs features a xylophone-heavy score and the roboticist Rodney Brooks. I wanted to hear Brooks dilate on robots in his cosmic way again.
As it happens, this fall had also seemed like the right time to clean the hell out of my apartment. To that end, I bought a Roomba, the blockbuster robovac Brooks coinvented in 2002, five years after he went public in the Morris movie with his theories of what robots ought and ought not to be. Among his most famous aphorisms: “Robots are good at very simple things like cleaning the floor.”
So while Roomba purred around the living room, very good at its simple thing, which is cleaning the floor, I found the Morris movie and entered that sweet hopeful decade of my early adulthood, the dawn of modern-day artificial intelligence, when AI was still called robots and machine learning was still called consciousness (with a question mark): consciousness? The 1990s.
“I saw a videotape of insects walking, and they weren’t even stable,” Brooks tells the camera at the start of the movie, as the film cuts to ants passing crumbs up a line.
What Brooks says is true. The individual ants teeter and lurch and erratically drop and rebound the crumbs, but they still travel along in a plausibly straight line.
“Everyone was implicitly assuming that a walking machine had to have stability, so I negated that,” Brooks goes on. “I said, ‘Let’s have a walking machine that doesn’t even worry about stability … that’s able to fall down.’”
That insight led Brooks to help create the Sojourner rover, which explored Mars, and the PackBot, which first disposed of bombs in Afghanistan and then measured hot spots inside the ruins of the Fukushima nuclear reactors that melted down in the catastrophic 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And of course the Roomba. Though Brooks is now known for his world-historical Sojourner and PackBot, a friend of his razzes him that all he really cares about are domestic robots that clean. Indeed, sometimes it seems that the central features of every Brooks robot are a broom, a dustpan, and eagle-eyed sensors that can find and collect gnarly things like Mars rocks, IEDs, nuclear debris, and dust bunnies.
Throughout Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Brooks suggests that the instability of human bodies—the wobble, stagger, fall, self-righting—might be the source of consciousness itself. I like this part, but it’s not cozy. “It appears as though the robot has intentions and has goals and is following people and chasing prey,” Brooks says. “But it’s just the interaction of lots and lots of much simpler processes … The sort of more radical hypothesis is, maybe that’s all there is.”
Well, maybe. Maybe someone else’s Roomba is all simpler processes and that’s all there is. But I anthropomorphize the bejesus out of mine. Not only does she have intentions and goals, she has a disposition: extreme composure. She also has a gender. On the phone, Brooks upbraids me for that—“I always, always, always really push back on people giving gender to robots”—and later I upbraid myself for having reflexively feminized my unpaid domestic servant (robot is from the Czech robota, for “slave”). Maybe it helps that I also idolize her.
To my Roomba, hitting a doorjamb and cleaning with dispatch are one and the same. There is no success or failure. She might be stuck in a rut under the sofa for ages, blind to a fairly simple escape, but she feels no embarrassment; when she’s executing a perfect beeline back to her base station to recharge, she betrays no smugness. There is no “clumsiness” or “grace” in her world; in Brooks’ design, these concepts have intentionally merged. If she bangs into the same chair leg again and again and again, she doesn’t say “D’oh!” over and over. It is just what is. Roomba is Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”