Friday, February 6, 2009

Why I won't buy a Roomba

Those of you who know me personally know that I like technology. Not only do I work in a technical field, but I like to follow technology trends, as evidenced by some of the blogs I follow. I'm not, however, the kind of person who's got to have the latest gadgets, but I like to know where technology is headed and what creative things people are doing with it. And sometimes, it's amusing to see what silly things people are doing with it.

When I first heard of the Roomba, I loved the idea. No one I know enjoys vacuuming -- it's a chore in every sense of the word. It is difficult work to push and pull the vacuum around the house; it's difficult to get to the walls and corners without bumping and scuffing everything; and, what I think is the worst part -- it's loud and really scares the dogs and cats. Though we're still far away from having a Rosie around the house, the Roomba is a big step closer. And iRobot, the company that makes the Roomba (along with Scooba, the floor washing robot, among others), makes a large selection of Roombas for every need, including the ability to schedule cleanings during times when you're away and virtual walls to keep the Roomba within a specified area.

But before this post begins to sound like a review or recommendation of the Roomba, let me explain why I would not buy a Roomba.

Aside from making the Roomba, Scooba, and other housecleaning robots, iRobot also makes robots for military use.

On their website, iRobot touts their "government and industrial" robots as "protecting those in harm's way", suggesting that they're used purely for defensive or protective purposes. It describe uses such as detecting and clearing land mines and IEDs and surveillance. However, iRobot also develops robots whose capabilities include the use of machine guns and grenade launchers.

Many of the articles describing these "wardroids" or "killbots" from iRobot reference the film Terminator and its sequels, describing these new army robots as predecessors to the fictional robot killers of the sci-fi blockbusters. Though the iRobot Warrior military robots are not autonomous killers, they do pose a different issue, a moral issue, given that they're remote controled by military personnel who are often stationed thousands of miles away from the battlefield.

What this means is a scenario where a soldier sitting at a control station on a military base in the U.S. can remotely control a iRobot Warrior robot armed with real weapons, scanning for enemy positions through a computer display. Then, by pushing buttons on a controller, launching missles or firing machine guns at the enemy and killing people without ever endangering himself. By the way, the controllers used look like video game controllers. Would it be easier for a soldier to push a button on a controller to fire his weapon than if he had to see his target through a gunsight and pull the trigger?

How can I watch a robot whiz around my house and clean my carpet when I know that the same company's robots are out destroying other people's houses? How can I use these robots to make my life more convenient when that technology is also used to extinguish other lives?

I know that part of the taxes I pay are going to the military budget that are funding the development and deployment of these robots. That's a broader question which cannot be easily addressed. But what is an easy question for me to address is to not buy a Roomba. I'm sure there are other companies whose businesses deal with things to which I object. When we find them, we should examine them and the choices we make, and choose not only based on what benefits ourselves, but also what impact those choices may have on other people in the world.

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