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No. 2919:

by Andrew Boyd

Today, we clean up. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

From its gritty birth in the streets of Cuba to the refinement of today's international ballrooms, rumba is a distinctively sexual dance. Hips swaying to seductive rhythms. Sensual caresses. It's a stylized version of a mating ritual, with the man repeatedly rebuffed while trying to sweep the woman off her feet.

Rumba moves
Rumba performed by Dario Pizzo and Karen d'Albundo, France [Wikipedia/Ailura]

Roomba, on the other hand, is a robot designed to sweep dirt off the floor. It's not the only robotic vacuum on the market, but in the world of floor cleaning it has panache to rival that of Apple's iPhone.

iRobot Roomba 780
iRobot Roomba 780 [Wikipedia/Tibor Antal'czy]

Roomba's shaped like a large Frisbee, standing about three-and-a-half inches tall. Push a button and away it goes. Over lamp cords. Under beds. Roomba's technology is much better than when first released in 2002. Now it's able to navigate even the most challenging rooms. Roomba may not reach every nook and cranny, but it rarely gets stuck and it does a surprisingly good job. And, be honest, when was the last time you vacuumed in those hard to reach places?

Roomba's also, well, charming — a tiny David off to tangle with Goliath, armed only with sensors and algorithms. It was developed by iRobot, a company founded by three researchers out of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Roomba's own intelligence is pretty simple. It doesn't try to understand the layout of a room, but simply responds in predefined ways when it bumps into something. Sometimes it follows a wall or circles around the leg of a table. Other times it scurries off across the room for no apparent reason. But there's mathematical method behind the madness. Trying to guess Roomba's next move can be mesmerizing, and you can't help but root for it to reach that annoyingly large fuzz ball hiding in the corner.

And here's an accessory you won't find with most household appliances: an interface that allows you to input your own algorithms. If you don't like Roomba's, try your own. It takes a bit of work — you need a computer and the ability to program. But owners who purchase a Roomba are greeted with friendly wrapping encouraging them to give it a try. 

iRobot Roomba End User License Agreement
iRobot Roomba End User License Agreement [flickr/Kevin Lim]

For enthusiasts who aren't interested in cleaning the floor, Roomba's makers offer for purchase the Create. The Create is a Roomba with empty space replacing the vacuuming components. That leaves it a controllable, mobile platform. What you attach to it's up to you. Create is great for budding engineers, classroom projects, and as a means to express humor. Sample creations from around the world include robots that draw sidewalk pictures, play laser tag, engage in sumo wrestling, and run to the refrigerator for a cold beverage. Still, my hat goes off to students at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, for giving us a Roomba that can rumba.

2 Roombas
Two Roombas: white and red [flickr/Tod Curt]
open iRobot Roombas



Video: iRobot Roomba Sumo at Baltic Robot Sumo 2010

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

All pictures are in the public domain.

This episode first aired on January 9, 2014.