By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
I can handle an interruption. I’m a married mother of three and a writer who’s been typing in the nooks and crannies of life for more than 20 years. I practically have a master’s degree in interruption.
But the last time it happened? It was weird. Surprising. And maybe even a sign of the times.
Let me back up and set the scene. We live in an area booming with new construction, which is great for the local economy but also hell on wheels – literally. In the past year, I’ve had three flats. If I was the paranoid type, I’d swear that stray nails see me coming and fling themselves in the path of my car just to interrupt whatever I had planned for the day and send me back to the tire shop – again.
The last time it happened, Tom and I slowly rolled to the nearest Sam’s Club, where we’d bought tires less than six months earlier. The good news was that the cost of the repair would be covered by the warranty. The bad news? It would take at least an hour.
But that was fine because Tom and I can meander through Sam’s Club for an hour just for funsies. It has basically become our middle-aged mall. So, we ordered two slices of pepperoni pizza at the store café and sat there eating and people-watching. But it wasn’t the people that got my attention. I couldn’t stop staring at the large, teal-colored machine driving up and down the aisles lined with giant packages of pretzels and cheese balls.
It looked like a smaller version of the Zambonis used to resurface the ice at a hockey game. Except the Sam’s Club Zamboni was driverless. It had a steering wheel and a driver’s seat, but they’d been roped off with yellow tape to discourage any impulsive shoppers from hopping aboard to take a spin.
After we finished our pizza, Tom wandered off to the electronics section, as he always does, and I gravitated to the pallets of folded t-shirts and sweatpants. A shirt caught my eye, so I started searching down through the stack to find my size. That’s when I heard it – the slow but steady approach of the driverless robot cleaner.
As the mechanical hum got louder, I glanced up at it. Out of the corner of my eye, I waited for it to detect my presence and take a left or right turn. Isn’t that what Roombas do? Zig and zag to dodge furniture, pets, and people?
But this thing didn’t swerve. It rolled straight toward me and then stopped a few feet away. Then it went “beep-beep!”
I stood there stunned. Was this thing seriously beep-beeping me? I’m the shopper! I’ve got money to spend in here!
Over the years, I’ve had my shopping interrupted plenty of times. By a baby who needs a diaper change. By a whiny toddler. By a bored husband who asks “Are you done yet?” five minutes after we walked through the door. But never in all these years have I been beep-beeped by an inanimate object insisting I move out of its way.
I stepped back to let the machine pass in front of me, leaving a gleaming swath of floor in its wake. A few feet back, a store associate trailed behind the robot like a human chaperone. She gave me an apologetic look, like she could appreciate the absurdity of being ordered to step aside by a robot janitor.
Shaking my head, I resumed shopping and plucked my size from the stack of towering t-shirts. Then I found Tom amongst the big screen TVs and told him about my near run-in with a robot. “It was weird, but at least it was a courteous beep-beep and not a long, aggressive honk,” I said. “That would’ve been way over the line.”
He agreed that society isn’t ready for store robots with road rage.
But since robots and artificial intelligence are learning so many new things – like cleaning, driving, writing, creating art, and answering all kinds of human questions – can’t we teach them how to fix a flat, too?
Now that would come in handy.
Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at email@example.com. Her book is available at Amazon.