Robots Without Borders

PR2 robot at the Maker Faire 2011 conference.

I heard a great story a few months ago. The researchers at Willow Garage didn’t like doing dishes, so they outsourced the task. In most other companies who hire a cleaning service, the story stops there. This is a bit different as Willow Garage is the creator of the PR2, a $285,000, anthropomorphic robot. Capable of walking the dog, folding laundry or grabbing your favorite beverage from the refrigerator, it is one of the most highly capable robots available. With its telepresence capability, washing dishes is an easy task, at least easier for the PR2 than the researchers, albeit with some hired help at the helm.

Upon identifying a few willing bodies, they ran them through some initial tests of driving the robot, before unleashing them into the kitchen. The outsourcing only lasted a short time though, as the researchers were kind of creeped out by an anonymously controlled robot hanging out with them. Not knowing who was on the other side, they eventually had to deal with cleaning their own dishes. This result was not too surprising. It is one thing to be around an autonomous robot as you learn its quirks and habits much as you would a human, you connect emotionally with it, even if it is only one way. Most robot owners actually give their robots a name and I often hear stories of staff able to recognize who is logged onto to a robot, just by the way they see it being driven. When you lack the feedback loop of either emotional interaction because the soul of the robot is constantly changing or an image or video of the person on the other end, the disconnect only seems to grow, once the novelty wears off. Perhaps if the researchers actually had an image and were able to interact and share feedback the results might have been different or at least they would have not had to do their dishes for a longer period. While the story is amusing, it does bring about several potential quandaries involving telepresence now and in the future. Telepresence robots in hospitals are becoming more popular, which begs the question, should an MD from another state or country be allowed to practice via telepresence? Should an MD from NY or even perhaps India be allowed to practice in Los Angeles, even though they are not licensed in that state or country or worse, not allowed to practice there anymore? We’ll likely see how that is tackled at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, when telepresence Robots will be available in all operating rooms.

Another quandary that will emerge is that commercially available telepresence robots lack the ability to manipulate their environment, but that technology is not far off. When it does, then you have the ability to physically import labor. Bringing up issues like how to tax them, or similar to the MD conundrum, do they need a visa to be in the country. A relevant example currently happening is the lack of H1B visas available to start-ups, when one or more of the founding team is from a foreign country. While current telepresence technology is not a substitute for actually being there, when you are able to interact with the environment, it does bring about a better experience. Does that visa problem go away once virtualization and telepresence technology become so good, that you are in fact there in all but body?

I’m not sure if this will take ten years or perhaps twenty before the technology is available for prime-time at reasonable cost, but it when it does happen, it will be exciting as we are given new capabilities, but nerve wracking as well, while we deal with the ethical and emotional issues.




A montage of PR2's capable tasks

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