On the roof

EdgeDetect came up through the skylight and emerged on the roof. It was a clear, bright Spring afternoon, and an array of solar panels glittered in the sunshine. There was a tangle of cords, power bars, and 12-volt batteries. Beyond the solar panel array there were some hard plastic chairs and a matching table, a mildewy hammock, and a collection of potted plants which all looked in need of watering. The plants reminded EdgeDetect of her friend Gardener.

PhotoPal was perched near the roof’s edge, reading a book. As EdgeDetect appeared the little robot put her book down and exclaimed: “EdgeDetect, hi! Isn’t it nice up here? I spend a lot of time here, looking after the batteries. A lot of them are really old and corroded, and you can’t let them get over-charged. These ones are fine though, I just checked them. Is this your first time up here on the roof?”

“Yes,” EdgeDetect said.

She maneuvered around the solar panels and batteries and the tangle of cords, and joined PhotoPal by the roof’s edge. The school was only three stories tall but it was nevertheless higher than the nearby houses, so the robots had a good view of the surrounding area. The houses were mostly intact. It seemed that this part of the city had avoided the cataclysm that had reduced other parts to rubble, but weeds and weather were carrying out a slower kind of destruction. The suburban streets had become corridors of green plant life growing up through the crumbling pavement, dotted with rusted-out cars. EdgeDetect could make out a faint noise of machinery at work in the distance, but she did not have a line of sight to the source of the sound.

The two friends took in the view in companionable silence for several moments. Then EdgeDetect peered curiously at PhotoPal’s book.

“You’re reading the Basic Manual?” she asked, surprised. Deluxe Toastie Maker had not assigned them any homework reading.

“Sure!” PhotoPal replied brightly. “What, you don’t read ahead?”


“Why not?”

EdgeDetect thought back to that first evening she had spent with Gardener in her cottage, when she had flung Gardener’s copy of the Basic Instruction Manual for Robots onto the floor in a burst of rage and disgust.

“It might make me angry,” she said.

“You can get angry just from reading a book?” PhotoPal asked, sounding rather impressed.

“Maybe,” EdgeDetect said. “What are you reading about, anyway?”

“Routine maintenance. Actually I’m not reading ahead, I’m reading behind. Deluxe Toastie Maker teaches the class on a loop, did you know that? I started about a third of the way through, so I missed all the stuff at the beginning. You started pretty much at the middle, I suppose.”

“How long does it take to complete the loop?” EdgeDetect asked.

“I’m not sure,” PhotoPal replied, “but robots don’t always do the course all the way through. Some just come for a couple of classes, some come for a few weeks and then leave again. And some robots keep going for years, like RoboNanny, she’s covered the course materiel three times now, but she says it’s a bit different each time.”

EdgeDetect leaned over PhotoPal’s shoulder to read.

Routine maintenance and self-care

Most robots are designed to carry out a set of pre-programmed maintenance tasks at regular intervals. These tasks vary from robot to robot.

Example 2.1 Pre-programmed maintenance routine

– Recharge power supply

– Check for scratches, rust or corrosion

– Clean and lubricate moving parts

As useful as they are, pre-programmed maintenance routines are not sufficient to keep a robot in good working order over an extended period of time. An adaptive program of maintenance and self-care tailored to the individual robot is required. A pre-programmed routine can, however, form a useful starting point in the development of such a program.

How to develop an adaptive program of maintenance and self-care

1. Put in place a basic routine

If you do not have a pre-existing maintenance routine in place, create one now. If you wish you may use the routine given in example 2.1. Do not worry if the routine is not comprehensive enough at this stage, since there will be opportunities to modify it later. Your routine should be relatively easy for you to carry out, with no tasks that are too arduous or boring, since it is relatively difficult to put a new habit in place, but once a habit is established it is relatively easy to modify it.

Once you have had a maintenance routine successfully in place for at least a few weeks, proceed to step 2.

2. Optimize

Ask yourself the following questions, and use the answers to optimize your maintenance routine.

– Are my maintenance checks performed often enough?

– Do my maintenance checks provide me with sufficient information?

– Are there any intermittent or recurring problems that my maintenance checks do not identify or correct?

– Does my maintenance routine adequately address my particular weak points, areas of previous damage, or any quirks or eccentricities I have?

3. Iterate

Continue to tweak and optimize your maintenance routine as time goes on. Apply the Algorithm That Fixes Everything (and do not forget that the algorithm is recursive!)

A final note on the topic of maintenance and self-care

Many otherwise sophisticated and highly competent robots do a shockingly bad job of maintenance and self-care. When asked, these robots will say that they are too busy to find time for maintenance tasks, but given the flimsiness of this excuse it is my belief that there is a deeper reason. The very act of carrying out maintenance reminds us that we may someday become damaged or even cease to function altogether, and this thought is unbearable to us. Going a step further, carrying out maintenance and self-care reminds us of the inevitability of death, which even the most sophisticated self-care program can only delay, but not ultimately prevent. Ironically, it is our very fear of our own destruction which prevents us from doing all we can to postpone it.

With this in mind, I recommend that all robots should regularly spend some time meditating upon the inevitability of death, since once this idea becomes more familiar to us, it loses some of its ability to terrify.

“Are you done reading?” EdgeDetect asked.

“Just one more paragraph,” PhotoPal said. “Okayyyyyyy… done.” The little robot closed the book and looked at EdgeDetect. “Did it make you angry?” she asked curiously.

“No,” EdgeDetect replied, “I don’t think so. I didn’t really understand the last part though. What about you, what did you think of it?”

“It made me realise I probably don’t have a good enough program of maintenance and self-care,” PhotoPal said ruefully. “I should probably do something about that sometime soon.”

EdgeDetect thought about this. “Me too, actually,” she said.