Telecommuting Into Robots Is a Real Thing

At the beginning of the summer, we wrote about a new way for workers to telecommute: directly into a mobile robot body. Essentially, you Skype your face into an iPad that’s attached to a Segway, except the people who make the mobile robot bodies have other names for their versions of those things. Then you use your laptop keyboard to drive the robot body as it rolls up and down office hallways.

We wrote about the Beam Smart Presence System, but Emily Dreyfuss has been testing out the Double Robotics Telepresence Robot since May — yes, of course there are competing versions of these types of robots — and she just wrote about her experience for Wired.

I’m a remote worker; while most of WIRED is in San Francisco, I live in Boston. We IM. We talk on the phone. We tweet at each other, but I am often left out of crucial face-to-face meetings, spontaneous brainstorm sessions, gossip in the kitchen.

So my boss found a solution: a telepresence robot from Double Robotics, which would be my physical embodiment at headquarters, extending myself through technology.

Does the robot work? Dreyfuss and her team have an initial learning curve, but she quickly integrates her robot self into Wired’s workspace:

Diary Entry: Day 6

Major breakthrough! I have my first West-Wing-style walk and talk as Embot. I knew this day would come. After the morning meeting, Patrick walks with me down the hallway discussing a longread I’m editing. He’s so cool about the robot thing that I briefly forget completely that it’s not normal to be a disembodied metal moving machine with an iPad for a face. He only says one thing that would be weird if I was walking down the hall as a fully-fleshed human, “You’re about to run into wall, come this way.”

There are two really interesting parts of Dreyfuss’s narrative. The first is how she reacts when her Wired coworkers touch or carry her robot without her permission.

I didn’t expect how instantly violated I felt. He just picked up an extension of my body. One moment I was in control of myself, the next, I was powerless. I laughed from the iPad screen faced away from him, but I was unsettled, and then immediately embarrassed, for the first time, because why should it matter to me if the stick I’m currently streaming from is picked up off the floor a continent away?

Get over it, I told myself. But then it happened again. And again.

Dreyfuss solves this problem by Using Her Words, which is generally how these types of workplace issues should be addressed, and her coworkers stop robothandling her new body.

And then there’s this part:

The other incredibly wonderful thing at this stage was that though Embot put me physically in the office, because she was just my head and not my body no one at work was seeing how pregnant I was looking. Now, of course, they know I am pregnant, but since I am not there, the visual reminder of my changed condition was not in their faces. I have worked at places before where women start getting treated differently when their bellies show. The kid gloves come on. I had been dreading how this could play out, but the way EmBot works I remained present and yet unchanged. No one remarked on my belly. It was not a factor in my work.

As we noted earlier this summer, telecommuting robots could be hugely beneficial to people with disabilities or chronic illnesses because the robots could be mobile on behalf of their users. What I didn’t realize until reading Dreyfuss’s account was how the optics would also change. You’d just see the face, not the pregnant belly or the wheelchair or whatever it is that a person might otherwise subconsciously (or consciously) discriminate against.

Read Dreyfuss’s entire robot diary, then let us know: Do you think telecommuting robots are a good idea? Would you use one? Do you think that, as Dreyfuss discovers, using a robot could be a way to overcome some types of workplace discrimination?

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