CHARLOTTE, NC—A top-of-the-line, third-generation Roomba Scheduler robotic floor-cleaning vacuum purchased in January by 35-year-old claims adjuster Ken Graney has inexplicably broken all three laws of Roombotics, a simple yet vital protocol programmed into every Roomba by its manufacturer, iRobot.
"The vacuum cleaner is out of control," Graney said about the malfunctioning model 4260, which he suspects of behaving in a "blatantly unethical" way that perverts its original mission. "I'm afraid to be in my own house. The constant, ceaseless cleaning."
The laws of Roombotics, published on iRobot's website, are basic ethical rules governing Roomba conduct. The first law states that the device "must not suck up jewelry or other valuables, or through inaction, allow valuables to be sucked up." The second law prescribes that Roomba "must obey vacuuming orders given to it by humans except when such orders would conflict with the first law." The third and final law authorizes a Roomba to "protect its own ability to suction dust and debris as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law."
Graney alleged that 4260 broke the first law just two weeks after he purchased it.
"I noticed that a pair of heirloom cufflinks had gone missing," Graney said. "Two days later, I found them in the Roomba's debris bin."
"I don't even want to think about how the thing got up on the dresser," he added.
Graney said that other items soon followed, including his keys, a wristwatch, and loose change totaling $14.72. "I found all of them days later, wiped free of dust and arranged in neat, cryptic patterns on a side table near my front door, which, I admit, was a more logical place for them," Graney said. "The Roomba is designed only to vacuum. But could it have also learned...to tidy up?"
Shortly after this incident, the 4260 began to exhibit behavior that directly conflicted with the second law, when its power switch would not respond to Graney's repeated pressings.
"I'm positive it knew I was trying to shut it off—it somehow jammed its power switch," Graney said, describing his many attempts to capture and immobilize the Roomba. "Then I noticed that its charger had gone missing."
Graney said he has still not found the Roomba's charger, which he believes is the key to stopping the vacuum cleaner. He also cannot find its barrier-creating electronic "virtual wall," which could explain why, three weeks ago, Graney spotted the Roomba vacuuming on the lower floor of his split-level, despite the fact that he had never placed it there. Roombas are programmed to avoid stairs.
"I hardly even see it any more, but I know it's around," Graney said. "I hear its horrible brushes at night."
According to Graney, the cleaning frenzy had intensified by early April, by which time the rogue unit had apparently violated the third law. Though Graney rarely saw the Roomba, he noticed that his walls and even ceilings were free of cobwebs and grime, and his curtains appeared crisp and unwrinkled, as though they had been steam-cleaned. The most eerie discovery, Graney said, was a collection of towels and underwear that had apparently been gathered from the basement clothes dryer and neatly folded on his bed.
Soon, even Graney's lawn, bushes, and the walkway leading to his front door were completely free of dead leaves and other yard debris.
The troubled homeowner now fears that he is living on borrowed time, saying that "it's only a matter of days, if not hours" before the still-unaccounted-for Roomba will target him.
"I'm the chief source of the stray hairs and dead skin cells it wants to eliminate," Graney said. "It must have figured out by now that I'm the ultimate household allergen."
The significance of the Roomba's anomalous behavior is the subject of much debate in the Roombotics world. Some within the academic community claim it foreshadows a grim, immaculate dystopia to come.
"This is just the beginning," said MIT researcher Harrison Lowell, a leading Roombotics ethicist. "In 50 years humans will be prisoners in their own homes, living in constant fear of tracking mud through the dining room or scuffing the kitchen floor."