I was at a business conference recently and came across a telepresence robot in the wild. I hadn’t interacted with one personally outside of a tradeshow or presentation where they were trying to sell you one, so I saw it as a unique opportunity to interact with it and gauge my feelings toward this diminutive human proxy.
We approached each other in the hotel lobby as any two people networking at a business conference. The young lady on the screen was cheery, attractive and I soon learned was hired to work the room to bring attention to a particular company’s business lounge. She offered to escort me there, but I declined due to other obligations. In the back of my head, oddly, I wondered how she would navigate the stairs or escalator.
We chatted amicably for a few minutes and I began asking more about her story. Vanessa was comfortably seated at home in Arizona (I was in New Orleans) and was hired to “work the room.” Although it was obviously a bit of a stunt using the machine to get attention, it occurred to me a few years down the road it wouldn’t be such a novelty. Various iterations are being tested for hospital, retail and business settings.
A telepresence robot is actually a pretty simple machine at its core. A monitor, a couple of motors, Wi-Fi connection and a two-way video feed is basically all it takes to place yourself thousands of miles away from virtually anywhere. All you need is a location with a decent network. A simple search online will uncover a couple dozen models being offered today.
These are far different than the advanced AI robots such as ASIMO being developed by Honda. Then there’s BigDog from Boston Dynamics, which manages to be both utterly fascinating and viscerally disturbing to watch in action.
Although it’s clear complex, AI-driven robots in the form of self-driving cars, personal sex robots, war machines and many other applications already have a toehold in our world. However, there are many people that still feel uneasy about the virtual world expressing itself too far into our physical space. We have our limits and baby steps, like telepresence models, are needed to ease us into an increasingly robotic world.
Consider the dream of a true, lifelike mechanical human that has been a mainstay of science fiction for more than a century. We’ve learned that creating a robotic face that is pretty close to lifelike currently illicits revulsion in a majority of those interacting with them. This is known as the uncanny valley, a phenomenon posited by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. It’s simply millions of years of evolution expressing itself when interpreting non-verbal cues through minute facial expressions was a matter of life or death. Warnings still flare deep in our psyche when something appears even a bit off, but we have the ability to move past them.
We intuitively trust whom we trust. And although scientists have created virtual phone assistants that can fool consumers—we’re a long way from creating a robot you can’t distinguish from an actual human. If science fiction can be pretty good at predicting the future, take a look at West World on HBO. If anything, humans value their distractions, so it certainly makes you think what the future of robotics may eventually hold.