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. ]

Digital travel and the price of oil

Paul Raven @ 16-03-2009

rusty old oil barrelsIt may be mercifully low again at the moment, but it’s safe to assume that once the global economy adjusts to recent events, the price of oil will obey its historical trend and start climbing once again.

Over at The Guardian, Charles Arthur suggests one of the major outcomes of increasing oil prices will be that travel – be it for work or pleasure – will become much less of a reflex action, at least for those of us who aren’t ridiculously wealthy:

If you need a shorthand for thinking about the future, then, it’s this: analogue will be increasingly expensive; digital will be increasingly cheap. Getting in a car or on a train or a plane? Analogue. Expensive. Non-renewable. By contrast, downloading an album, watching a webcast concert, watching TV: digital. Endlessly replicable, virtually instantly transmitted, cheap.

What, in turn, does that mean for our society? Apart from fewer cars on the roads (though possibly with more people sharing rides in them), it means more time working at or near to home, if your work involves things that can be done digitally. For all those jobs that need to be near to physical things – that is, where you make things like cars or food or whatever – you’ll have to be based nearer the place you work.

I hasten to point out that this is not exactly a new suggestion, but what would have been delivered as a slightly comedic tongue-in-cheek piece of journalism ten years ago (doubtless complete with a reference to “sci-fi futures of virtual travel”) seems much less ludicrous in the light of our new-found interest in frugal living. [image by Atli Harðarson]

I seem to remember one of Stephen Baxter’s Destiny’s Children books featuring a very-near-future Earth where travel is achieved by a kind of mash-up of telepresence and VR technologies. Can anyone think of any other sf stories or books with a similar theme?

Peak Oil may be closer than we think

Tomas Martin @ 08-10-2007

Are tankers going to be lonely in future?As you may know, as a writer and blogger, Peak Oil is one of the topics that fascinates me, ultimately leading to the 30,000 word fictional blog miawithoutoil I wrote earlier this year for the World Without Oil project. This editorial from the Buffalo News is a great summary of Peak Oil as it enters the public consciousness. Another good frontpage diary at Daily Kos yesterday detailed a few excellent potential strategies from the Energize America project, which emerged from Daily Kos to be a major player in alternative energy related politics.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that sooner or later the resources of the planet will run out. Finite oil was always on the case, even when I was at school. But according to some writers like Richard Heinberg, we may be very close or even just past the peak in global oil production, even if it takes a few years for the news to filter down the supply lines and alert the wide world. A former Canadian oil CEO thinks we’re pretty close too.

We are already being encouraged to cut down on fuel use by environmental campaigners and everyone concerned with global warming. Peak Oil presents a natural brake on the climate change bandwagon but in a sudden stop, things will get very unstable. By encouraging smaller cars and smaller commutes, alternative fuels and increased public transport, as well as building shops, jobs and facilities closer to home and utilising the great advantages the internet gives us with telecommuting and virtual goods, we could create a world that would ride out the shrinking resource climate without capsizing. We’d better start soon.

[photo by Boback]