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BY GEORGE MUSSER For generations, tinkerers have been pointing out how much their projects will lighten the load of housework. For generations, spouses and parents have failed to be impressed by these claims. ” I explained that it would eventually vacuum the floor. ” All these years later I still have trouble getting my creations to do the most basic things, like move in a straight line. My professions of usefulness don’t carry much weight around the house anymore. At least I am not alone. Seldom in the history of technology has an industry been so eagerly anticipated, and so slow to emerge, as the consumer robot industry.

IRobot’s offices are on the second floor of a nondescript strip mall, just above a store selling children’s clothing. It’s the kind of office that an eight-year-old would adore— machines that look like miniature tanks lurk in every corner, as if awaiting orders to attack. The robots are tested in a large, highceilinged room called the High Bay, which is where I encountered a telepresence robot named Cobalt 2. The machine resembles a futuristic wheeled animal with a long neck and a bubblelike head.

The main cleaning mechanism is basically a Bissell carpet sweeper—one of those rug cleaners that is often found (and sometimes used) in college dorm rooms. A zigzagging wire forms a cage to keep the rotating brush from choking on the corners of rugs. A miniature weed whacker on the side flicks dust away from the base of walls. Behind the sweeper are two squeegee blades with a narrow slot between them—a “microvacuum” designed to suck up dust and hair. ) The dirt ends up in a plastic cartridge. The only controls are an “on” switch and three buttons to specify whether the room is small, medium or large.

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