Early this year a new hire arrived at the office of IEEE Spectrum magazine in New York City. It was QB, a telepresence robot designed to act as a person's stand-in at work. For a week, it roamed around the office while associate editor Erico Guizzo sat at home in Brooklyn, using his laptop to steer the robot, peer through its cameras, and talk to his colleagues.
The robot, which has an alien-looking head perched on a thin pole, rolls on a two-wheeled self-balancing base. It has cameras, microphones, and a laser pointer that shoots green light from one of its eyes. QB is the creation of Silicon Valley start-up Anybots, which will start selling the machines this month. Each will cost $15,000.
In the September IEEE Spectrum issue's "When My Avatar Went to Work," Guizzo describes his experience of becoming a robot for a week. He explains how QB works, how it compares to traditional teleconference systems, and some of the problems he encountered, like losing connection to the robot or having to ask a coworker to reboot it.
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 sellling telepresence robots. 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?
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