As I come down the hallway, heads start popping out of cubicles and offices, all eyes turning in my direction. Some of my colleagues laugh, some frown. One looks terrified and flees. That’s what happens, I suppose, when you show up at the office as a robot.
The robot is acting as my stand-in at work. For a week last spring, it roamed around IEEE Spectrum’s New York City office while I sat in my pajamas at home in Brooklyn. From my laptop, over the Net, I could steer the robot, peer through its cameras, and talk to my colleagues. It’s a bit like a video game, but instead of a virtual character, you’re controlling a real avatar.
The robot has an alien-looking head with two big round eyes that’s perched on a thin carbon-fiber pole. One eye captures high-definition video; the other shoots a green laser beam. The laser isn’t for zapping coworkers you dislike but for pointing at things. My robotic proxy rolls on a two-wheeled base that balances just like a Segway. This is no humanoid C-3PO. It looks more like a floor lamp.
The robot is called QB, though my colleagues promptly nickname it EriBot. QB is what is known as a telepresence robot. It’s the creation of Silicon Valley start-up Anybots, which will start selling the machines this month. Each will cost US $15 000—not exactly a bargain for a robot that doesn’t even have arms (or a positronic brain, for that matter). But Anybots says that as a communications platform, QB lets remote workers collaborate with others in ways that a wall-mounted monitor in a conference room could never permit.
Embodying a QB, you’d be able to join impromptu meetings, drop by a coworker’s office, even gossip at the water cooler. You could tour a distant facility or observe a live demonstration without having to hop on a plane. To paraphrase management guru Peter Drucker, why transport a whole body to work when all you need is the brain—a brain you can upload into a robot anywhere?
Indeed, becoming a robot has its advantages. Every morning, while my colleagues dragged their carbon-based bodies to the office, I’d open my laptop at home or in a coffee shop and, with a few mouse clicks, incarnate my robotic self. Call it robocommuting.
My goal was to find out how my robotic life compared to the real thing. But I also wanted to explore something more profound: Will telepresence robots eventually take people’s places at work, whether we like it or not?
Artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky extolled the promises of telepresence in a 1980 manifesto in Omni magazine. “Eventually telepresence will improve and save old jobs and create new ones,” he wrote. “Later, as we learn more about robotics, many human telepresence operators will be able to turn their tasks over to the robots and become ‘supervisors.’”
Today at least five companies are selling or will soon start selling telepresence robots. Like QB, these are still relatively simple machines—glorified laptops on wheels. But proponents say that as computers, sensors, and motors get better and cheaper, telepresence robots will advance too, revolutionizing engineering collaborations, health care, even manual labor. Could this be the future of work?
To prepare an article like this one, I’d normally travel to different places to talk to people and see things up close. But given that this story is about telepresence, why not let robots do the reporting for me?
Here’s how it started. Sitting at my computer in New York City, I log on to a QB robot at the Anybots office in Mountain View, Calif. There I meet Trevor Blackwell, Anybots’ founder and CEO, an amiable guy with gray-white hair, thin glasses, and a soul patch. An entrepreneur, he founded Anybots in 2001 because he couldn’t believe “there still weren’t robots helping around [my] home and office.”
Using QB, I follow Blackwell as he shows me around. Hanging from a crane is one of the first robots he and his small crew built. It’s a sophisticated humanoid called Monty. Slap on sensor gloves and a backpack of electronics and you can get the robot to instantly replicate your movements, whether you’re grasping a teacup or operating a power drill.
Monty also has a technology that became a key part of QB: a custom self-balancing wheel system. Blackwell says it’s better than standard three- or four-wheeled bases for driving over bumps and around tight corners. It’s also quite stable, which he once demonstrated by planting a kung fu kick on Monty’s chest. The robot held its ground.
Blackwell’s initial goal was to design a robot servant like Rosie from “The Jetsons.” But rather than build an autonomous robot, which technologically was just too difficult, his idea was to have a human worker remotely control the robot. He envisioned the machine doing chores at people’s homes or operating the fryolator at McDonald’s.
Cost issues and technical complications eventually forced Anybots to scale back its vision. The company decided to focus instead on telepresence. Teleoperated robots have long been used to extend a human’s reach into distant locations, such as space and deep under water, and in hazardous places like mines and nuclear reactors. But such robots are designed to perform specific tasks. Anybots wanted to focus on robots that let people be at a remote location. “After 100 years of advances in communications, where we discovered how to transmit text, voice, images, why not try to transmit presence?” Blackwell asks.
Building on what the company learned with Monty, it designed QA, a humanoid-looking robot with a sleek, white plastic body. That design got streamlined further, and QB was born. Behind its simple appearance is a neat combination of hardware and software. Inside the robot’s base, the engineers crammed a computer running FreeBSD—a Unix-like operating system—two Wi-Fi cards, two DC motors, a pack of four 14.4-volt lithium-ion batteries, and a set of gyroscopes and accelerometers. Blackwell and three colleagues wrote software from scratch to control the robot and handle all networking and communication functions.
At the end of my tour at Anybots, I asked Blackwell if I could borrow a QB, expecting him to say, “Sure, just send me a $15 000 check.” Instead he said, “When do you want it?”