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What does your Robot Vacuum have to do with your child’s development?

The Roomba fundamentally changes routine activities around the house – in the example of this blog post, cleaning chores – which form an essential part of a child’s developmental pathway. Depending on the situation and context, the impact is to a lesser or greater degree.

We all remember Roombas from their debut in pet home videos in which cats enjoy a ride through the house on the robot vacuum cleaner. Of course transporting pets was not their intended purpose: the Roomba popularized automatic vacuuming robots guided by sensors and a digitally directed schedule to free people from some household cleaning tasks.

Pets and cleaning aside, how might the round robot that circles around the household floors have lasting impacts on the development of your child? The answer is…
… the Roomba fundamentally changes routine activities around the house – in the example of this blog post, cleaning chores – which form an essential part of a child’s developmental pathway. Depending on the situation and context, the impact is to a lesser or greater degree.

For example, Forlizzi and DiSalvo (2006) found that the technology can lead to behavioral “adaptations” and pseudo-social bonds being formed with the Roomba such as giving it names and describing its personality. A phenomenon that occurs for children as well in the form of “friendships” (Sharkey & Sharkey 2010). These became reflected in behavioral changes in people because of the Roomba. Forlizzi and DiSalvo further noted that kids made messes on purpose to test the Roombas capabilities. What happens when a master-servant dynamic unfolds with robot “friends”?

A useful framework to understanding how a technology may impact child development is an ecocultural activities analysis (Weisner 2002). Based on this framework, we developed our “Choose Your Own Future” resources set that can help assess this impact and consider subsequent future outcomes. It asks us to consider how a technology might change the following parameters of an activity:

  • Goals and values
  • The people involved (the relationships we engage in during the activity) or those impacted
  • The resources required
  • The actual skills and ways of behaving (i.e. a script for completing the activity)
  • Emotions and type of engagement experienced.

As a team at ethix, we very briefly thought about two versions of the activity “Doing Chores”: the analog version “using a broom” and the robot version “using a Roomba.” Here is an overview of our own (brief) answers. The differences reflected in our answers also reflect the possible differences a child’s developmental path can take – if the activity in question or the parameter descriptors become routinized in a child’s life. What does the child physically practice, routinely learn through informal processes, or which world views is it exposed to? The choice in this activity – analog or Roomba – becomes one of many stepping stones in a child’s developmental pathway. Depending on its surrounding context and prevalence it will have a lesser or greater impact.

Based on our analysis (to be taken with a grain of salt – this is in no way a full research study! It would be expected that answers from different people would vary, etc.), I’ve taken the liberty of picking four differences to briefly discuss.

1. Self-satisfaction/reward

Engaging and putting effort into tasks can be an extremely rewarding experience. For some of us, putting in the handiwork and physical effort of cleaning the house can feel “rewarding” and “fulfilling.” While the Roomba was marked by excitement about the technology (i.e. “Very cool tech” and “Enthusiasm for the Tech”) it was not seen as eliciting the kind of deep and beneficial psychological experiences of producing the reward from one’s own efforts – an experience that is linked to intrinsic motivation which is considered to be important for children’s engagement and education.

2. Human virtues vs. technical knowhow

For the skills and script category, the analog sweeping led to more human virtues being incorporated. Noteworthy were that you have to be “diligent/careful” and “thorough” to really sweep in all the corners, have patience, and to be an active participant. These are social and personal skills that are not to be minimized given that they can be useful and desirable for children to develop. A robot offers the development of technical knowhow – understanding how to configure the device and read the manual. Technical knowhow also extends to preparing the house for the technology in order to make it accessible creating a kind of “partnership.”

3. Natural resources

As could be expected from any electronic household items, the robotic activity version was marked numerous times with needing electricity and more natural resources. Overtime, these objects become normalized and may become considered a household “need” impeding critical reflections on the energy and resource use they inherently carry with them. In the case of the robot vacuum, it could be argued that the resource of “time” (see below) takes precedence over the natural resource factor and that this can be transmitted as a value to children.

4. The time factor

As mentioned above, having patience was marked as a skill for sweeping, which of course, requires a certain amount of time. In addition, the analog activity version was described as a “family contribution” – perhaps where family members take time to clean the house together or do something to benefit the household. In comparison, the Roomba version of the activity was labeled as “efficient” and as leaving “more time for colleagues and family” so that the family can spend time together in other capacities which can also be beneficial. This time allocation effectively distinguishes family activities and cleaning activities into separate categories. This can impact how children learn to relate and function within their family/household units.

These are just a few preliminary contrasts pulled from our notes about cleaning robots that become introduced into children’s lives. Even relatively simple, “everyday” innovations are inherently a social and communal process and if routinized can alter the course of development. They are not neutral (see our White Paper on this subject), but rather carry certain affordances and interact with the contexts in which they become implemented. Even vacuum robots.

Important is our capacity to think about these difference within our own contexts and decide – with attention and care – which ones are really desirable in our lives depending on what values we consider important (e.g., developing technical know-how or diligence in our team’s analysis). As part of our “Choose Your Own Future” resources, we developed a “Values-Navigation System” with settings and signals that are filled out to reflect the values, relationships, skills and scripts, resources, and emotions/engagement that we want to have guiding our lives and the lives of our children.

Check out our White Paper on this topic and our related workshop resources to create your own Values-Navi!



Forlizzi, Jodi, and Carl DiSalvo. 2006. "Service robots in the domestic environment: a study of the roomba vacuum in the home." In Proceedings of the 1st ACM SIGCHI/SIGART conference on Human-robot interaction, pp. 258-265.

Sharkey, Noel, and Amanda Sharkey. 2010. "The crying shame of robot nannies: an ethical appraisal." Interaction Studies 11, no. 2: 161-190.

Sung, Ja-Young, Lan Guo, Rebecca E. Grinter, and Henrik I. Christensen. 2007. "“My Roomba is Rambo”: intimate home appliances." In International conference on ubiquitous computing, pp. 145-162. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

Weisner, Thomas S. 2002. "Ecocultural understanding of children's developmental pathways." Human development 45, no. 4: 275-281.