Monday, July 27, 2009

Synthetic Sympathies

Synthetic Sympathies

Edams Are From Mars, Roqueforts Are From Venus

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a party. Specifically, a cheese party. And at this joyous union of human and curd, I noticed that my gracious hostess owned a cleaning robot — a real one, unlike my fictionalized concoction in the above comic. You've probably seen these robot vacuums before. They look like a sort of over-sized high-tech hockey puck. If it turned out one of the exotic wheels of cheese at the party was from outer-space, you'd naturally assume the vacuum was their ship.

At one point during the night, the robot was activated, and the little guy cheerily began his cleaning regimen. Now, if you're unfamiliar with how these marvels of science work, they zip about the room, following a virtual map that they create as they go along. They "learn" the dimensions of the room and all the places that they can and can't get to. Dogs do something similar, but rather than cleaning, they just sort of seek out the best spot to eat the wall.

Anyway, as I was saying, the cheesewheel spaceship starts up. And he doesn't make it more than a couple of inches before he runs into the feet of a party-goer. And he stops, presumably making a little note for himself on his virtual map. He turns and toddles off another couple of inches. Bump. Another party-goer. Another little note for himself. Turn, bump, note. Turn, bump, note. And at this point, you can see he's really losing confidence. Turn, bump. Turn, bump. Is this the same room? Turn, bump. The obstacles are moving! Turn, bump. I've been abducted!

Now he's visibly panicked. After a few more frenetic bumps and turns he manages to scoot under the coffee table, where he spends the next couple of minutes hiding and emitting occasional mechanized whirs and hums, rising desperately in pitch. A robot scream.

This, of course, is the side of robotics we never expect. We hear the term "robot" and picture these efficient, super-smart machines that will outperform us at every turn. But when you really interact with a robot, they come off as kind of pitiful. Interacting with a robot is a lot more like accommodating an enfeebled grandparent or mentally-challenged sibling than matching wits with an equal. You go to Chuck E. Cheese, and the animatronic band is performing to a completely empty room. That's really sad when you think about it. They don't even realize that their entire fan base left. The Pizza Time Players should be back in the studio, mixing their next album, or maybe each working on a solo project, or trekking across India in hopes of finding inner peace with an animatronic guru. But instead they stand there tragically and obliviously rocking on. It breaks your heart. They will never ever get signed.

On the bright side of all this, the grim Terminator-style future where robots hunt us like mice seems like a scenario I will never experience . Even should deadly robots arise in my lifetime, I feel confident that they will have weaknesses not unlike the cheesewheel spaceship. I should be able to just tiptoe out of the room quietly, unnoticed, while it mercilessly blasts a sawed-off shotgun into my floor lamp over and over and over and over...

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You, sir, have done Douglas Adams proud.

russer butter

It just goes to show you how inefficient humans can be. That stick could have been used to reinforce the robot's spine, thus completely cleaning up the mess and avoiding the need to turn the robot on at all.

Of course giving the robot a backbone might not be the best idea, as it may one day build enough self esteem to quit cowering, come out from under the table and become a rampaging killbot.


i call shenanigans. nobody would ever invite you to a cheese party.


Testmonkey - Sad to say, I'm actually pretty unfamiliar with Douglas Adams's work. I did see the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie, but I understand this fell short. Enlighten me!

Russer Butter - Yes, but I've clearly provided a technique for avoiding killbots. And collecting on your homeowner's insurance at the same time.

Wayne - Well, I technically wasn't invited. I was just wandering the streets in my tuxedo, stumbled onto the party, and everyone assumed I was the wait staff. Made some sweet tips that night, too.


Aside from the opening sequence featuring the dolphins, your are correct: the movie fell very short indeed.

The next time you find yourself with some time to kill or — heaven forbid — laid up by that miscreant back of yours, I'd recommend diving into the book. Its elevator doors rival the "occasional mechanized whirs and hums" of your little cleaning robot.

A final note: I'd recommend reading it in an empty house else your companions (dog included) will call in the men with the white coats on account of your audible laughter whilst peering at a seemingly innocuous book.

Erik Drabløs

I second the belief that you and Douglas Adams would quite like each others work. I think you'd find H2G2(as I understand the correct abbreviation of the aforementioned book to be) is a surprisingly short 832-page volume.

As to the film, I quite enjoyed it myself. I just employed the mental technique of completely ignoring the fact that it was based on an even more enjoyable book. The technique should of course be completely routine should one ever see any films based on books.

Cliener von Cleanskin

I’m somewhat surprised the cleaning robot didn’t immediately try to kill everyone in the room. In retrospect, it’s fortunate the owners didn’t pay the extra for the combat accessories.


i agree with testmonkey. read the books. a waste of time well worth the waste. and i think you will enjoy the wackiness of british humo(u)r ... or witty bon-mot, as you have it.

russer butter

Bear, if you want to read the books I can lend them to you the next time our paths meet. Or if you are more apt to watch something rather than reading I can lend you the original BBC TV series on DVD. Still not as good as the books, but a lot better than the movie.

If you want to borrow it though I need my Complete Black Adder back.


Erik - I wish I could apply that technique. I've lately ruined a lot of films for my wife with my complaintive comparisons to their book counterpart.

Cliener - Haha - NICE :D

Thanks4AllTheFish - As long as it's more PG Wodehouse wackiness than Benny Hill wackiness, I'm game.

Russer - Very well. You'll get your Black Adder... (tents fingers, slouches in high-backed chair, looks intense).

William Stewart

As with Helen Keller, the best way to punish a robot is to rearrange all the furniture.


Off topic: would you draw me a Brownie brownie? i.e. a chocolate pastry with little fairy bones in it... and a hat (I think).

Kind of like an owl-pellet but with a delectable chocolaty taste.



So, do Cheesewheel UFOs abduct crackers ... or mice?


Sure, laugh at the monkey in the cage. Haha monkey look at him trying to peel that banana.
One day you go into out of space, come back to find that it's the future... and the monkeys can talk! and the humans are in cages like animals...

That vacuum's grandfather will be the one telling you you can't eat those chips in your nursing home.


Wouldn't that be the vacuum's grandson? Or great-nephew? Personally, I would prefer a robot orderly - when they get on your nerves with their silly rules, you simply have to find the on/off switch ... email them a virus ... toss a glass of water on their circiut box. I shall have my chips, by Jove, and my dip, too!! Mwah--hah-hah-haaah!!!


Hehe... Phyllis... you consistently deliver what the kids of today term "LOL's"


Why, thank you! You really are too kind! :-)
My kids have informed me that the new going thing is ROFL, which I think is a kind of frozen snack cake. No, wait, they're saying it's Rolling On Floor, Laughing. Undignified, but what are you gonna do? They're kids.


Yes... brownies.


Ah, Azul... I've begun drawing the brownie, but I'm having trouble finding reference. I might just use the "junior girl scout" type of brownie instead. I just need to find one looking to get a "Successful Cooking Ingredient" merit badge.

The Jazzer

That looks to me like a self fulfilling robot.

Alan M Sherwood

Brilliant, one of the best pieces of reporting I have had the pleasure of reading in months. Thank you.


I agree! Sadly, the New York Times had to go through budget cuts and, of course, cheesewheel spacecraft reporting is always the first to go. Shame, really. I bet when Earth is controlled by the robot overlords, this sort of thing would never happen!


Not sure this is witty repartee but I digress; if you want to experience Douglas Adams work, start with the original Radio 4 series of The Hitchiker's Guide to the galaxy. It's almost but not quite entirely unlike the books and very well dramatised. He wrote and had it recorded before the books so it adds yet another slightly different take.

Also, I belive Adams was at some point the president of the P.G. Wodehouse appreciation society, which might give you some idea as to his comic potential.


A splendid take on the old adage that there are three kinds of people in this world: those who can count - and those who can't.


Hehe... NICE :D

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