Ruby the Robot

Here’s a question for you. If anthropomorphism is the word for ascribing human qualities to animals, what’s the term for attributing lifelike features to inanimate objects? Machines, to be exact.    

Whatever it is, I’ve got it. I never expected this to happen to me. I avoid owning gadgets and gizmos and doodads and thingamajiggies. It’s almost a phobia. The word for this is technophobia: fear or dislike of technology and complex devices.

Sometimes it is a problem. I don’t have a smartphone or an app, which means I can neither order an Uber nor use my flip phone for the new downtown parking meters. The last bit doesn’t bother me because we change downtown parking often.

In my opinion, everything is becoming too automated. All in the name of efficiency and data gathering. One doctor’s office I frequent requires not one but two gadgets — at the same time — to confirm an appointment. While I’m confirming it on the computer, their office sends me a code by phone to use to confirm that I’m the one doing the confirming. Why? A personality thief wants to sneak in and take my bone density test?

Sometimes the magic "Open Sesame" is a birthdate. In Tucson, my sister tells me, the water department won’t talk to her until she gives them her birthdate. She’s even crankier about this than I am. "Look," she said to them, "you’ve got my phone number, my home address and my account number. What is so significant about my birth date? Am I the only person in Arizona born on this date?" The water company hung up on her.

Recently I felt the need to flee from the intrusively automated, data-hungry world and retreat to a comforting place. I took a deep dive into Anthony Trollope. First, the mini-series "The Way We Live Now" on Amazon, and when that didn’t satiate me, Trollope’s 511-page novel "Barchester Towers." This is not avoidance of life, it is life at a remove — avarice, pettiness, cunning, greed, desperation and betrayal, but in pretty Victorian fashions and Church of England clerical attire. Mankind’s dark characteristics seem less upsetting when seen at a distance.

With my gadget avoidance syndrome, imagine my surprise when I bought a Roomba. A round robotic vacuum. With gadget avoidance and a robot, I’m living somewhere between "The Flintstones" and "Star Wars."

But she has become more than a machine to me. I humanized her by naming her Ruby. Ruby the Roomba. I am not the only one who names our Roombas. Eighty percent of us Roomba owners do this.

I push the button that says "Clean," and off she goes humming and vacuuming. It is enormously rewarding to lie napping or sit reading and hear Ruby bustling through the house happy in her work. She is my own little automated staff of one. I like the erratic way Ruby moves. She does not roomba mechanically back and forth; she dashes here and there, to and fro, like a squirrel in the road. This makes her seem more lifelike. When I can’t find her, I call her. "Ruby, honey, where are you?"

Some days she behaves like a pack animal, just like the dogs in my house. On those days, Ruby wants to be wherever I am. In the same room. Underfoot. Doesn’t want to leave my side, whatever her darling little sensors tell her.

Ruby is industrious in her work and always of good cheer. She doesn’t swear at the dog hair like I do. She doesn’t weep in despair when she sees the dirt and leaves the dogs have tracked in. Not that she’s invincible. Sometimes she gets stuck under a chair and I have to rescue her, but I identify with that. When my leg was broken, I got my walker tangled in the recliner and thought someone would have to rescue me.Take it from Ruby and me: furniture isn’t as innocent as it looks.

So here we are. One happy family: two dogs, one cat, Ruby the Roomba and me. Our family is complete.

But wait. I just read that robotic lawn mowers are available. I’ll name him Larry, the lawn robot.

Is this how civilization is lost? One robot at a time?



Connie Cronley is the author of four books, commentator for public radio 89.5 FM and a columnist for TulsaPeople.

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