Convenience in the electronic age

Over the weekend we visited a couple of doctor friends up in the Blue Mountains. With two young children and with the husband constantly on call at the hospital they don’t have much time for household chores.

Their house is designed to be low maintenance. Every room is wired up to a central computer that can control the lights and heating, automatically sensing when the room is occupied. Solar panels supply their electricity needs and in the back yard a large steerable satellite dish picks up television from Asia. In their main lounge room a Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner sucks up the dust when the family are not around, while in the backyard a robot lawnmower from Israel cuts the grass. It was rather amusing to watch it chase our dog while he was squatting down to do his business.

It sounds like a geek’s dream, and it is, but watching the robots in action I realised just how far they have yet to go. I don’t mind mowing the lawn, it’s trimming the edges that annoys me. Yet this is precisely what the robot mower doesn’t do. Similarly, the robot vacuum cleaner can’t suck the dust off the nooks and crannies, the shelves and furniture, but this is what takes the most effort. These are not simple activities to train a robot to do and the devices that will one day do these tasks will probably bear little relation to the crude robots in action today.

Is it better to design the living space around the robot, or the robot around the living space? Most technology presents some form of constraint on the end user. The friends’ house and garden was already designed for minimal maintenance, but our own multilevel house and sloped garden with irregular borders would present a far greater challenge for an autonomous device.

Another chore that they have attempted to simplify is grocery shopping. They buy in bulk from discount retailers over the internet. As a result they have very little fresh food. Even the milk is of the long-life UHT variety. Personally, I would rather forgo the convenience for the joy of cooking and eating with fresh meat and vegetables.

So, how do they spend the time saved? Their lounge room has a huge projection screen, wonderful for watching movies on. What I do not recommend using it for is racing car games on a PS3. B and I both felt physically ill from the motion on the large screen.

All this left me wondering if geek heaven was really such a wonderful place to be. At the end of the day I was glad to be home.

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