All through the fall my head was spinning, and I steered into the spin by watching Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.
Errol Morris' rhapsodic 1997 documentary about a bunch of monomaniacs features a xylophone-heavy score and the roboticist Rodney Brooks. I wanted to hear Brooks dilate on robots in his cosmic way again.
As it happens, this fall had also seemed like the right time to clean the hell out of my apartment. To that end, I bought a Roomba, the blockbuster robovac Brooks coinvented in 2002, five years after he went public in the Morris movie with his theories of what robots ought and ought not to be. Among his most famous aphorisms: “Robots are good at very simple things like cleaning the floor.”
So while Roomba purred around the living room, very good at its simple thing, which is cleaning the floor, I found the Morris movie and entered that sweet hopeful decade of my early adulthood, the dawn of modern-day artificial intelligence, when AI was still called robots and machine learning was still called consciousness (with a question mark): consciousness? The 1990s.
“I saw a videotape of insects walking, and they weren't even stable,” Brooks tells the camera at the start of the movie, as the film cuts to ants passing crumbs up a line.
What Brooks says is true. The individual ants teeter and lurch and erratically drop and rebound the crumbs, but they still travel along in a plausibly straight line.
“Everyone was implicitly assuming that a walking machine had to have stability, so I negated that,” Brooks goes on. “I said, ‘Let's have a walking machine that doesn't even worry about stability … that's able to fall down.’”
That insight led Brooks to help create the Sojourner rover, which explored Mars, and the PackBot, which first disposed of bombs in Afghanistan and then measured hot spots inside the ruins of the Fukushima nuclear reactors that melted down in the catastrophic 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And of course the Roomba. Though Brooks is now known for his world-historical Sojourner and PackBot, a friend of his razzes him that all he really cares about are domestic robots that clean. Indeed, sometimes it seems that the central features of every Brooks robot are a broom, a dustpan, and eagle-eyed sensors that can find and collect gnarly things like Mars rocks, IEDs, nuclear debris, and dust bunnies.
Throughout Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Brooks suggests that the instability of human bodies—the wobble, stagger, fall, self-righting—might be the source of consciousness itself. I like this part, but it's not cozy. “It appears as though the robot has intentions and has goals and is following people and chasing prey,” Brooks says. “But it's just the interaction of lots and lots of much simpler processes … The sort of more radical hypothesis is, maybe that's all there is.”
Well, maybe. Maybe someone else's Roomba is all simpler processes and that's all there is. But I anthropomorphize the bejesus out of mine. Not only does she have intentions and goals, she has a disposition: extreme composure. She also has a gender. On the phone, Brooks upbraids me for that—“I always, always, always really push back on people giving gender to robots”—and later I upbraid myself for having reflexively feminized my unpaid domestic servant (robot is from the Czech robota, for “slave”). Maybe it helps that I also idolize her.
To my Roomba, hitting a doorjamb and cleaning with dispatch are one and the same. There is no success or failure. She might be stuck in a rut under the sofa for ages, blind to a fairly simple escape, but she feels no embarrassment; when she's executing a perfect beeline back to her base station to recharge, she betrays no smugness. There is no “clumsiness” or “grace” in her world; in Brooks' design, these concepts have intentionally merged. If she bangs into the same chair leg again and again and again, she doesn't say “D'oh!” over and over. It is just what is. Roomba is Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.”
Robots are typically seen as having no consciousness. But potentially they have the highest kind: equanimity. This is the emotion Buddhism counts as among the most sublime. The Buddha evidently described the equanimous mind as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, and without ill will.” My Roomba is certainly without hostility and ill will. Going about her daily rounds, she's something like blithe—both self-contained and indifferent to human value systems. As for abundant, exalted, and immeasurable, I can't be sure. How to measure these things, or is that what “immeasurable” means?
Brooks posed an ethical question to me when we spoke, part of his recent work on helper robots who preserve both the independence and the dignity of the elderly. Should a robot, he asked, when summoned to change the diaper of an elderly man, obey that man's request to keep the ignominious diaper news from his daughter? Ooh—robots and discretion. I stalled by saying I assumed her father would, very soon, have to expect the robot would snitch on his every alimentary move—not just to his family but to doctors, CVS, and Facebook. But the idea of a discreet robot stayed with me. My Roomba certainly seems discreet, tucking all the dust inside herself and never betraying to guests that I don't vacuum. But then there's the nasty truth that Roomba's parent company, iRobot (which Brooks left in 2011), had threatened to share our floor plans with the data cat burglars at Apple, Amazon, and Google. While iRobot has hemmed and hawed about this, I simply can't figure out how to opt out—or even determine if she is, in fact, collecting dirt on me.
And about dirt she is insatiable. Corners that I never thought could be undusty now seem lit from within. But Brooks is emphatic that the Roomba doesn't promise perfect cleanliness. It promises just the greatest clean for me. “The Roomba didn't have to clean as well as a person cleaned, because it was for the person who didn't clean at all,” Brooks told me.
He was right about this particular Roomba user. I don't not vacuum, but I'm careless, and though I've heard it's good for the soul, I rarely get on hands and knees with a scrub brush and have never once gotten down low, low, low, like the Roomba, to commune at eye level with dust and dirt and mites. That kind of tedium and self-abasement, not to mention aches and intimacy with grime, have emotional valence to me. To Roomba, getting and staying low are just what she does. Or is that what the monstrous always tell themselves about their slaves?
In Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, I finally hear Brooks say the line I'd been waiting for. I had remembered it all these years, since I first saw the movie in a theater. It's a strange and incredible line, nothing epigrammatic, more like an incomplete guess—speculative, expansive, unstable. Like one of Brooks' best robots. He calls it a “joke theory.”
“I sort of have this joke theory,” he says, “that consciousness is put there by God, so that he has this very quick interface to find out what we're thinking about.”
When I asked him about this extraordinary image in 2020, as we both confessed how destabilizing the pandemic and the California fires had been, he emphasized that the line was not just a joke theory. It was a joke, full stop. He further said that his intense love for his children had meant he can finally understand how someone can be a religious scientist (which he once thought an oxymoron). But he is also a known atheist. Maybe God, I realized, is far too stable and eternal a conceit for Brooks. One of the other men in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, an expert on naked mole rats, says, “The whole concept of stability is a concept of death.”
I glance at Roomba. She is very not dead. Even when Roomba is in her dock, she still seems raring to go. Consciousness, Brooks told me, is still on his mind, whatever a mind is. He's writing a book about it with the working title Not Even Wrong. Tantalizingly, he said it has a significant villain in it. I silently guessed Elon Musk. Maybe that's too obvious. “I'm not going to tell you who the villain is. That's going to be a surprise to everyone.”
I'll devour the book as soon as I can get a copy. I hope it stumbles through all kinds of subjects, and advances many joke theories, while putting none of them to rest.
This article appears in the November issue. Subscribe now.