(Roughly) Daily

“The only advantage of not being too good a housekeeper is that your guests are so pleased to feel how very much better they are”*…

Roomba is on the rise, but is the humble carpet sweeper poised for a rebound? Edward Tenner considers…

Every so often technology critics charge that despite the exponential growth of computer power, the postwar dreams of automated living have been stalled. It is true that jetpacks are unlikely to go mainstream, and that fully autonomous vehicles are more distant than they appear, at least on local roads. And the new materials that promised what the historian of technology Jeffrey L. Meikle has called
“damp-cloth utopianism”—the vision of a future household where plastic-covered furnishings would allow carefree cleaning—have created dystopia in the world’s oceans.

Yet a more innocent dream, the household robot, has come far closer to reality: not, it is true, the anthropomorphic mechanical butler of science-fiction films, but a humbler machine that is still
impressive, the autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner. Consider, for example, the Roomba®. Twenty years after introducing the first model, the manufacturer, iRobot, sold itself to Amazon in August 2022 for
approximately $1.7 billion in cash. Since 2013, a unit has been part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

As the museum site notes, the first models found their way by bumping into furniture, walls, and other obstacles. They could not be programmed to stay out of areas of the home; an infrared-emitting
accessory was needed to create a “virtual wall.” Like smartphones, introduced a few years later, Roombas have acquired new features steadily with a new generation on average every year. (They have also inspired a range of products from rival manufacturers.) Over 35 million units have been sold. According to Fortune Business Insights Inc., the worldwide market was nearly $10 billion in 2020 and is estimated to increase from almost $12 billion in 2021 to $50.65 billion in 2028.

Adam Smith might applaud the Roomba as a triumph of the liberal world order he had endorsed. Thanks to the global market- place for design ideas, chips, and mechanical parts, he might remark,
a division of labor—Roomba is designed mainly in the United States by an international team and manufactured in China and Malaysia—has benefited consumers worldwide. Smith would nonetheless
disapprove of the economic nationalism of both the United States and China that has made managing high-technology manufacturing chains so challenging.

Yet Smith might also make a different kind of observation, high-lighting the technology’s limits rather than its capabilities…

Yet Smith might also make a different kind of observation, high-lighting the technology’s limits rather than its capabilities… Could household automation be not only irrelevant to fundamental human welfare, but harmful? As an omnivorous reader, Smith would no doubt discover in our medical literature the well-established dangers of sedentary living (he loved “long solitary walks by the Sea side”) and the virtues of getting up regularly to perform minor chores, such as turning lights on and off, adjusting the thermostat, and vacuuming the room, the same sorts of fidgeting that the Roomba and the entire Internet of Things are hailed as replacing. In fact the very speed of improvement of robotic vacuums may be a hazard in itself, as obsolescent models add to the accumulation of used batteries and environmentally hazardous electronic waste.

As the sustainability movement grows, there are signs of a revival of the humble carpet sweeper, invented in 1876, as sold by legacy brands like Fuller Brush and Bissell. They offer recycled plastic parts, independence of the electric grid, and freedom from worry about hackers downloading users’ home layouts from the robots’ increasingly sophisticated cloud storage…

Via the estimable Alan Jacobs and his wonderful Snakes and Ladders: “Adam Smith and the Roomba®” from @edward_tenner.

(Image above: source)

* Eleanor Roosevelt

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As we get next to godliness, we might spare a thought for Waldo Semon; he died on this date in 1999. An inventor with over 100 patents, he is best known as the creator of “plasticized PVC” (or vinyl). The the world’s third most used plastic, vinyl is employed in imitation leather, garden hose, shower curtains, and coatings– but most frequently of all, in flooring tiles.

For his accomplishments, Semon was inducted into the Invention Hall of Fame in 1995 at the age of 97.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 26, 2023 at 1:00 am

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