It is a poignant fact about robots that they are much better than humans at some tasks and hilariously worse at others. Take, for example, the Roomba. The round robotic vacuum keeps floors spotless by working its way in complicated patterns around the home, zipping into corners and around furniture. But put a piece of animal poop in its way, and suddenly it doesn’t look so smart. This weekend, when a Roomba in Arkansas ran into a puppy’s fresh deposit on the floor, disaster ensued. “If the unthinkable does happen, and your Roomba runs over dog poop, stop it immediately and do not let it continue the cleaning cycle,” Little Rock resident Jesse Newton warned in a viral Facebook post, complete with illustration. “Those awesome wheels, which have a checkered surface for better traction, left 25-foot poop trails all over the house.”
Newton was not alone in experienced what he called “the Pooptastrophe.” A Roomba representative admitted to the Guardian, “Quite honestly, we see this a lot.” In fact, the exact same thing happened a few years ago to my brother- and sister-in-law. Daniel and Margaret are both lawyers, and they live in Texas with their Bichon Frise, Mr. Fluffy. (As Daniel describes the incident, “The robot we bought to act as a surrogate cleaner so we both can have time to pursue our jobs literally covers the house in excrement from our proxy for a child.”) I called Margaret and asked her to walk me through what happened. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Let’s start at the beginning. When this happened, how long had you had the Roomba and how long had you had Mr. Fluffy?
Mr. Fluffy predated the Roomba, but I don’t remember how long. Both were relatively new to the household. Can I just say, I don’t want my 15 minutes of fame and internet posterity to be about this story.
Ha, I’m not going to use your last name. Is just “Margaret” OK?
“Margaret” is fine.
OK, so tell me how you came to acquire the Roomba and how you used it. Would you set it every day before you go to work?
Daniel was really into this idea of getting a Roomba. And it wasn’t even a Roomba, it was a generic [version] that was on sale at Costco. He was really into it, and I was like, whatever. So we got the Roomba and he handled setting it up and everything. It [ran] during the day while we were at work. We’d leave for work, and the Roomba and Fluffy would be home alone.
Did it clean things well? Were you happy with it?
I was neutral toward it. Daniel, I think, was happy with it.
How would you describe Fluffy as a dog?
He’s mostly couch-bound, and he hates going to the bathroom outside, especially in hot weather. [Reminder: Fluffy lives in Texas.]
So walk me through what happened: You get home that day, what’s the first thing you notice?
I was walking into the kitchen, and I looked out into the dining room and there was a brown—almost like a giant crayon, all over the floor. I get down on my hands and knees and rub it with my thumb, and it becomes very clear to me immediately that it is shit, because of the smell. I cannot even tell you, Ruth, the smell. That was the worst part of the entire thing. I’m on my hands and knees and I’ve just realized my thumb is covered in shit.
That guy’s story really resonated with me because it was all over. All, all over. And you saw how inefficient the Roomba was. It was covering its own tracks a lot. It’s going over the same area a ton. It’s a very efficient poop-smearing thing, but it’s not very efficient for cleaning your house. I remember thinking to myself, it’s going to be easier to move. And then I spent the next hour-and-a-half scraping up poo trails.
Did you have to clean out the Roomba?
I did not. There was no way I’m cleaning out the Roomba. Daniel can do that if he wants.
Did Fluffy seem aware at all of the hell that he had unleashed?
No. No. No. He’s never been aware. Just this last week I ordered a pair of flip-flops and he ate the left flip-flop. I ordered another pair, and fortunately later in the week he ate the right one. But at least I have one pair.
Was Daniel willing to get rid of the Roomba after this happened?
You might have to talk with him about this. I remember the Roomba use being curtailed, but I don’t know if it was directly related to this incident. That would be my lawyer response to that. [Daniel: “Yes, that pretty much killed the little robot. Every time I brought it out or referenced it there was an automatic retelling of the incident. … You should try to ask her this Christmas, ‘Hey—what ever happened to that Roomba?’ ” Eventually, they gave it away to friends.]
Who do you blame for this incident?
I blame it on the Roomba, absolutely. Fluffy, he’s a dog. That just happens. The Roomba was definitely at fault.