Many of us here at Automaton have been skeptical of telepresence robots. We've seen companies like iRobot and Wowwee try to make their mark with consumers at home; Anybots and North End Technologies seem to want to corner the professional video conferencing (robo-conferencing?) market; and InTouch Health thinks a robot can enable a doctor to visit patients remotely. Though these companies continue to get investments, the technology hasn't taken off -- in fact, iRobot even shelved their telepresence robot project. It seems to be a technology still looking for the killer application.
I was sitting comfortably in Skeptic Zone when I had a chance to talk with John Merchant, an IEEE member and president of RPU Technologies. John has an interesting theory: he thinks telepresence robots are the key to enabling "blue-collar telecommuting" while simultaneously helping to lower our greenhouse gas emissions.
He described how telephones, laptops, and widely available internet access changed the white collar workers went to work each day. With Blackberries and home computers, professional life becomes flexible enough to work with the main office while travelling or even sitting at home. This has enabled people to take jobs in distant geographic locations where they don't have to commute each day, usually giving them more time to spend with their families, and creating less overhead for employers. I think most people will agree that this has been a great technological development.
But the manual labor workforce has lagged behind. Someone needs to be physically present to operate machinery, load pallets, and carry out other manual tasks. Even heavily automated assembly lines require an operator or supervisor. These workers haven't been able to take advantage of the many benefits telecommuting has provided for others. But, says Merchant, robots might make the difference.
Imagine your job is to perform quality inspection in a production line. Your task is a matter of taking workpieces out of a bin, fixing them to a test jig, and verifying some parameter. Instead of physically driving in to work, though, you wake up, have a nice breakfast, see your kids off to school, and then log into your computer, which connects to a robot at the factory. This robot lets you see and manipulate your part of the production line. For the next eight hours you effectively play a video game as you guide the robot through the quality inspection process, then sign off for the evening just in time for your kids to get home from soccer practice.
Besides the convenience factor, think of the other possible benefits. Second and third shifts become not new people showing up for work, but time-shifted people logging in to the same robot someone else has just signed off of. By not driving in, significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions from cars are eliminated -- the average commuting American spends 100 minutes in the car each day; think of how that could be cut down with telepresence commuting. It could even remove workers from work environments that could damage health or be potentially dangerous... look at how NASA and the Air Force are using telepresence today, to explore planets and perform surveillance missions.
Of course, there are negative implications as well. If telepresence becomes commonplace, outsourcing control of the robots to developing countries with cheaper labor would be an extremely attractive proposition. And though such generalized autonomy technology is in its infancy today, the possibility that these telepresence robots could be made fully autonomous and not require human guidance will certainly make many people nervous.
And we haven't even mentioned the technical challenges. Take a look at some of today's telepresence robots -- with the exception of NASA's, none of them have manipulators; most of them are glorified LCDs on wheels. And the required bandwith, Merchant points out, will be the biggest obstacle.
But still, Mr. Merchant's concept really made me think. Of the telepresence applications I've heard suggested, this is the one that catches my interest. The benefits are obvious. So what do you think? Is this the killer app? Or is telepresence still looking for its niche?
This all reminds me of a quote from a professor of mine that really stuck with me. He was being interviewed about his work in robotics, and he was asked, "So are you going to build the robot that watches your kids while you go to work?" "No," he said. "I want to build a robot that can go to work for me so I can spend more time with my kids."