Don’t mess with Mildred.

The husband arrived home with her one day last year. I thought we were doing alright but he thought otherwise, we need outside help to deal with this, he said.  If there is a problem, we can’t just ignore it, he said in his pragmatic Germanic sort of way.

Here we were, both of us working full-time and every Saturday morning without fail, the question of the dreaded vacuum cleaning came up. Who in their right mind ever wants to do vacuum cleaning and especially on a Saturday morning when everyone is in relax mode. The kids are usually strewn around the place in various poses with their dismantled tiny Lego toys and you are about as welcome as a tornado as you threaten to suck it all up, including them if they don’t move it, toute suite! I myself was doing well with a skill I called ‘adapting to my environment’ which meant ignoring it all unless we started to lose things in a dusty fog, we hadn’t lost the kids in it yet so all was well.

Then Mildred arrived to solve all of our problems. She is a robot vacuum cleaner, ingenious really. The husband said she was on sale somewhere and it was a no-brainer to buy her. Come to think of it, he is very lucky that he seems to find all high value electronic items on sale somewhere…., he always finds amazing sales……

She was immediately named Mildred, a strong, no-nonsense name with a hint of unpredictability as she seemed to be a bit edgy, giving off an air of gum-chewing attitude if you know what I mean. We pressed her ON button and set her off on her merry way. She roamed the floor sweeping and sucking up like a little demon, lights flashing and groaning all the way to tell you she was coming after you next if you didn’t clean yourself up a bit. The kids were in awe and scared at the same time, racing around to pick up their Lego like never seen before, go Mildred, go!

Right now, as I sit here and type, she is out in the hallway and scratching at the door, in fact she’s banging against it relentlessly trying to get in. I’m ignoring her. She will move on again soon as she finds another door to bang against. And after that, she’ll cry out for help from the next room as she gets herself in a tangle with a toy that we forgot to move or a chair or a cable, she eats cables like they are sweets and then tries to burp them out again, then you have to rub her tummy to make it all better. It’s like having a little puppy I suppose, but no walkies or poop to clean up.

Sometimes, she gets lost under a bed or the stove and I send the kids looking for her. ‘Mildred, Mildreeed, where are you?’ evokes no response whatsoever but we call out anyway, showing how much a part of the family she has become. If she answers back one day, it’ll be time to pack the bags and find a new planet, I think.

You see, Mildred gets smarter, the more she cleans. With inbuilt sensors and intelligence I don’t fully understand, she roams around the house and gets to know ‘the terrain’, where the obstacles are and how to get around them. When she is happy and has cleaned everywhere, she returns to her charging station and gives a loud beep of relief to tell you she’s finished for the day. There’s no doubt that intelligent robots like this are fascinating. Self-driving cars are coming, I read somewhere this week that robots are doing home delivery of pizza in Washington D.C. these days. How far away are we from stopping at a crossing and chatting about the weather with one of these things?

For now, Mildred seems to be just using her core skill set and vacuum cleaning like a crazy thing. And the question, whose turn it is to do the vacuum cleaning has changed to, can you set Mildred loose?

I’ll admit that she is a tiny bit scary as she circles around my feet determined to clean me up a bit, but I guess the fact that we have anthropomorphised her adds to the fright factor here. Thankfully, there is no evidence yet of her getting carried away and raiding the liquor or leaving the house and hanging out with other bots on the street corner when we are not around. Rest assured, I am keeping a close eye on her though.


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