The emotional bond humans form with our domestic robot slaves

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

They're supposed to be coming for our jobs, but in practice robots play to our emotions, with humans developing a soft spot for their new robotic housemates and colleagues. 

Robot butlers who serve our every whim (and are also witty companions) are colourful characters in the collective imagination of a Jetsons-esque, utopian future. They often featured in '60s cartoons alongside flying cars and beam-me-up teleportation on the dreamy wish list of technology everyone thought we'd have by the 21st Century.

Instead, the future got Trump.

A glimpse into the future?
A glimpse into the future? 

Although pop culture envisions a more Hunger Games-y or Wall-Eoutcome for us now, the evolving relationship humans share with domestic technology is no less interesting. Case and point: Roomba vacuum cleaners.  

Humans have an evolving relationship with the iRobot Roomba.

Auckland mum and parenting blogger Maria Joy got her robot vacuum (affectionately named Frank) one year ago, and she's never looked back on the future. 

Frank, who is used daily, is very much a part of Joy's family, and even has his own Instagram account. Joy said the daily clean, which she schedules and controls from her iPhone, is well worth the price tag ($749 - $1449 depending on the model). 

A study by Jodi Forlizzi at Carengie Mellon University found that half of families who are given Roombas form social relationships with them. Roombas are often named and talked about in the same way we might speak about an animal, or another human. This is called anthropomorphising. 

Humans do it all the time. Ever yelled at your car? Smacked your TV? Complained about a piece of technology being "stupid"? You're anthropomorphising. 


Dr Christoph Bartneck at Canterbury University, who specialises in human-computer interaction explains: "Talking to or yelling at a machine is completely irrational; they couldn't care less how you feel. People anthropomorphise almost any form of technology because the ability to recognise other life forms is deeply rooted in our evolutionary brains."

In the jungle, cave people would spot anything that might be tiger just in case it was. Our brains still do this. 

Bomb-detecting robots that work with US military personnel for long periods of time have been taken on fishing trips, awarded medals, and in some cases given funerals.

Robots get anthropomorphised the most because they exhibit behaviour that otherwise we only ever experience with other humans, or animals. If you ask someone: Do you think your Roomba has feelings? Of course they will say no, it's just a machine. 

"However, if you observe peoples' behaviour, they'll act as if the robot is alive," said Bartneck. 

One of the family's in Forlizzi's study named their vacuum Manuel (after Faulty Towers), "because it has a personality; it seems to be sort of intelligent". They talked to Manuel, saying things like:  "Hey, come on over here. You've already done that."

Another study participant would say "excuse me" to her Roomba if she bumped into it. 

"I stuck eyes on Frank, it's a bit of a running joke," said Joy. "When he gets stuck we roll our eyes and say "OH FRANK!" 

However, Bartneck believes iRobot isn't particularly keen to invite anthropomorphising of their product: "It would be really easy for them to design the Roomba much more like an animal, by putting eyes on it for example. But they didn't do that, which I think is a wise choice."

The reasoning is quite simple: If something has eyes, users will assume it can see. If it has a voice, we'll assume it can listen. ​When a technology's appearance is more advanced than its performance this leads to frustration and disappointment. 

Robotic love in the home: domestic robots are here and we love themCute kid boy playing with interactive toy. Child with toy robot dog. Activities for small children. Communication and digital concept.

Humanity is still some significant advances away from the robot pals of '60s cartoons. An entirely self-cleaning home "is everyone's dream, isn't it?" Bartneck laughs. 

He won't hazard a guess at when such a thing might be possible, but says multipurpose robots will probably be built in a human shape and size in order to navigate our houses, which are of course built for our use.

Maybe we've all done so much vacuuming in our lives that as far as chores are concerned, we're quite happy to be replaced. Maybe, our delight stems from the many, many videos of cats riding them that exist on the internet.

Or maybe, it's the way they sometimes get stuck in confused circles for quite some time, only to get task done in the end that makes them seem just a little bit human. 

"I honestly never thought I'd love our robot vacuum as much as I do," said Joy. 

"It's just a bit of fun when the notifications come up on the phone saying "Frank is stuck" or "Frank is on the edge of a cliff". In a world full of  terrible things, it's nice to have a giggle over something silly like that."