Dumb futurism: telecommuter robot reaches staggering new heights of pointlessness

Paul Raven @ 19-05-2010

Anybots QB telepresence robotEvery time I see someone ask the (usually rhetorical) question “why don’t we have the world full of robots that science fiction promised us?“, I’m always tempted to reply with a swing of the clue-by-four: “because anyone with any sense can see that a human worker is always going to be cheaper and more useful“.

Cheap and useful are two watchwords for companies that employ telecommuters, too. So why in hell’s name would a company of that ilk decide to invest in something that looks like a vaguely anthropomorphic floor-polisher to “to be the eyes and ears of telecommuters, workers in branch offices, and others who collaborate with people in an office when they aren’t in the office”?

If you really need that worker in the office, pay them to come in; it’ll be cheaper than ol’ QB here, and you’ll get all the real benefits of having a meatperson in the room, rather than a suite of functions that, if you really needed them, could be adequately provided by a mid-powered laptop and some audio-visual gear mounted on one of the old trolleys from the postroom that never gets used any more because everyone sends stuff in by email. Any CEO who thinks that he needs to spend thousands of dollars on “enterprise-class telepresence equipment” should probably give his IT geek a payrise and start listening to him once in a while.

I don’t know what’s more disappointing; that there could be even so much as a potential market for this tackily kitsch little technofetish, or that so many supposedly tech-savvy journalistic outlets could have written such uncritical puffpieces about it.

[ I fully blame the curmudgeonly tone of this post on having encountered the word “webinar” twice within the space of one morning. Writing this was a better option than killing puppies and kittens. ]

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4 Responses to “Dumb futurism: telecommuter robot reaches staggering new heights of pointlessness”

  1. Chris says:

    I’ve seen this all over the place. I guess the interesting aspect is that it demonstrates people are/will grow more comfortable with the idea of a robotic presence in the workplace. Telepresence is going to become more common and having things like this in the mainstream media injects the concept into the public conciousness.

    Although this particular idea is absolute nonsense.

  2. rjh says:

    Puff pieces on telecommuters aside, this is useful for remote offices and remote workers. There are definite advantages experienced with devices like this in telemedicine and similar situations. The field experience is that it does make a big difference and have significant advantages over using a telephone. The human team interactions are better when there is a physical avatar used, and the remote controlled video for remote vision does make a difference.

    This is not the usual telecommuter situation. This is for people who are not able to simply drive in to the office. So the market for things like this will be modest. I see it being justified when the engineers in Montreal need to work with a manufacturing team in Mexico, not to avoid 15 miles of traffic.

    I’ve also seen customized variations on this theme make significant cost savings for telepresence for language translators in hospitals. They make it feasible to have infrequently used language translators on call, rather than on staff. When the translator is needed, there is not time to travel. The added cost is justified by the lower cost of on call hours versus on staff salary. Those units are rather customized in their video capabilities because experience showed that rapid precise display of facial expressions and hand motions was crucial to accurate translations regarding illnesses and symptoms. Ordinary Internet video quality did not work.

  3. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    Speaking as a telecommuter, this thing gives me the heebie jeebies. One of the wonderful things about not going into the office is NOT going to meetings, in person or virtually. I find I communicate just fine with my editors between email and the telephone.

    Though since I’m participating in a lot of press conferences via telephone this week (telephone conferencing is a great invention, imho), I find myself imagining a press conference where both the presenters and the reporters are all represented by those little lawnmower-looking robots. Kind of creepy …

  4. Giulio Fontana says:

    I suspect that substituting physical people with telepresence robots means taking away exactly the properties of physical meetings that make them preferrable to (say) telephone conferencing in the first place.
    Robots will, I am sure of that, have a big role in human society. But definitely not as absurd remote-controlled physical avatars (excluding *very* specialized applications). Then again, maybe rich paranoids will begin fueling a small market for such things…