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Power On: The QB works for eight hours on a lithium battery, before needing a recharge. Video can be displayed, Skype-style, on the robot's forehead.

Robots Are Changing the Future of Telecommuting

What does the $15,000 Anybot tell us about the future of telecommuting?

My first morning in the Fast Company office was an awkward affair. Bleary-eyed, I managed to navigate out of my editor's office, only to slam head-first into a glass door. I lurched down the hallway into the lobby area with the sound of giggling colleagues in the background.

At least it wasn't my flesh-and-blood body banging around the New York office. Instead, I was perched on my sofa in San Francisco, using a computer to control the QB, a $15,000 "telepresence" robot that's essentially a teleconferencing system on wheels. The QB, a hybrid of WALL-E and a Segway, can sit, stand, roll around on its wheels, speak, display video on its forehead, and point a laser out of one of its "eyes."

Long tapped for factory work and perilous situations, robots now want into our offices. I signed on to test-drive the bot for a week in advance of the QB's limited rollout this month by Anybots. The Silicon Valley startup will be entering a suddenly crowded white-collar-robot market: In the past year, fellow startups VGo and Willow Garage have also come out with bots. (Google cofounder Sergey Brin was recently spotted using Willow Garage's Texai robot.)

Proponents argue that such robots are the natural outgrowth of pervasive connectivity, inexpensive broadband, and the realization that constant business travel is taxing on both people and the planet. Dozens of remote employees could time-share one robot to slash travel and boost productivity. But most people had just one question when I rolled up on them in the hallway: What's the point? Are workplace robots the next evolution of telepresence applications like Cisco's desktop apparatus, or is this just another sci-fi fantasy in search of a meaningful application?

My first days of using the robot were mostly spent showboating for Fast Company colleagues, but I soon settled in -- and the giggling settled down -- so I could get to work, participating in group meetings, reviewing layouts, and interviewing in-office sources.

QB picks up where teleconferencing leaves off, argues Anybots CEO Trevor Blackwell, a former leader of the Yahoo Store development group and current partner at Y Combinator. Blackwell founded Anybots way back in 2001, with the long-term ambition of helping robots split the $4 billion telepresence market with static teleconferencing. Robots, he says, are especially handy for plugging people into those watercooler conversations that often yield the best ideas.

"We've always had lots of remote people, and all of the real decisions happen informally," says Evernote CEO Phil Libin whose company has been testing a QB for three months at its Mountain View, California, headquarters. "The problem with videoconferencing is that it works well for prescheduled conferences but not for spur-of-the-moment casual conversations." Blackwell sums up his own videoconferencing woes that helped inspire him to create the bot: "It was such a common experience to be up on the screen and a group of people would wander out and continue their conversation. I'd be left there on the screen saying, 'Hey, guys, come back!' "

Still, encountering R2D2's cousin on the way to the bathroom can be startling. "Not everyone is equally comfortable with it," Libin says, "but as people get more accustomed to seeing the thing, it won't be quite as noteworthy."

It doesn't hurt that QB eschews bells and whistles (and even arms) for a streamlined frame, says Sigurður Örn Aðalgeirsson, a PhD candidate in the Personal Robots Group at MIT. "When I look at QB, I have low expectations toward it. That lets you be more focused on the conversation and less focused on expecting the robot to do tricks."

For most travel-weary workers, the biggest trick may be one the QB already handles quite nicely: letting us stay where we are while also being where the action is, minus the carbon emissions spent and travel time lost. Americans on average spend 12.5 workdays a year commuting (that's more time in transit than on vacation). And business travelers average seven trips per year.

"We are without a doubt the last generation to do this ridiculous amount of transport," says Paul Dickinson, CEO of the Carbon Disclosure Project. "It's got to stop, and it will stop." Still, Dickinson isn't sure robots will be the mass-market solution for redundant travel, given their high prices. "The big revolutions in tech -- fax, email, web, mobile phones -- achieved mass deployment with a simple, affordable unit that worked."

For most offices, that means videoconferencing will still trump QB in practicality. But the freedom of movement that a robot offers should not be wholly discounted. I have been to the Fast Company offices only twice over the span of 18 months. But following my week with the QB, I recently had an in-the-flesh visit and found that I not only knew my way around but also remembered where individuals sat. I felt, in other words, as if I had just been there.

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9 Comments

  • Linda Fite

    As a corporate trainer and public speaker, I durn near destroyed my body with travel.  We're talking not 7 business trips a year, but more like 8-10 business trips per month!  Think of the possibilities for this in terms of classroom training (which is still very much needed in some instances).  I could "be there" via robot, facilitating the classroom conversation with full visual and audio information both ways.  Participant travel is minimized as they can meet in any on-site room.  Classroom size can be small or large, since travel expenses are no longer necessary.  And the facilitator can 'show up' anywhere in the world awake, alert, refreshed, healthy and ready to boogie.  I'm looking to learn where I can get one and how much I need to start saving up!  Extra bonus:  Sounds like the bot would be generic, which could help eliminate age-bias, gender-bias, racial-bias and many other diversity issues.  ('Course we'd still have technology-bias to deal with, but that just generates lots of new and interesting dynamics from which to learn about each other.  I'm lovin' it (hope McDonald's doesn't sue me).

  • Jonathan Marney

    OK - when will they have the upgraded version? the most natural upgrade would be to have dual video cameras that directly feed a dual display for me to wear at home--so that I can see in 3-D. Also - I want it to come with a motion sensor for use with the user's-3D glasses, which interface back to the 'bot'--so that if I turn my head to look around the room, the 'bot will pan for me....

  • Lori Robinett

    Something I don't see addressed here (unless I have just missed it) is how this might benefit individuals who are disabled. It seems that someone stuck at home for whatever reason could greatly benefit.

  • Afam Edozie

    The machines will not make our descendents obsolete - The choice is not either, or.

    Last month I got my first cybernetic device. Two oval shaped pieces of glass held together by a carbon fibre frame. They cover my natural eyes, when I attach it to my nose and ears, and help me to see more clearly. I understand there are more modern versions, that can be placed directly in my eyes.

    You are correct, all species either evolve or die (regardless of whether they're put out of their misery by machines, environmental changes or just plain boredom.) The Human species is a great survivor and will in my opinion evolve in order to survive. The historical method of evolution - mutation and natural selection - is no longer an option.

    So we will engineer our own evolution with genetic technology and by incorporating man made technology (just like my glasses or an artificial hip) to enhance current capabilities.

    Future Sapien will be a blend of old homo sapien, genetic engineering and electronic technology. Melding what people do best, what machines do best and the best bits that can be cannibalised from other species. They may very much look like you or me (the right aesthetics makes the process more socialy attractive - consider the increasingly popular more advanced version of my eye enhancement,) but underneath they will have totally different technologies and capabilities. There may even be more versions (a bit like the proliferation of species starting with mainframes and so far getting to handhelds, netbooks, laptops, desktops, servers, etc.) than the six we currently have (Aboriginal, Asian, Caucasians, Khoi, Negro, and Pygmy.)

    They may even come in more colours say blue for those engineered for acquatic environments (to survive global warming), grey for those engineered to move into space, and even purple for those engineered for creativity (or with really cool parents.)

  • Michael Ehling

    Next big business opportunity: fashion and accessories (digital or real-world) for your telecommuted-self robot. Just imagine an office with two of these blank-faced creatures roaming the halls. To avoid confusion ("Is that you in there, Ken? Parminder?") and to express uniqueness, style, or social affiliations, people will want to personalize their bot.

  • Gen Hendrey

    The math in this article seems terrible. 12.5 business days per year commuting? That's a 12-minute commute each way (given an 8-hour day and the other figure about 12.5 days being greater than vacation time, so assuming 50-weeks worked). I don't know anyone who'd complain over that commute!

    Here in Boston, tens of thousands of people spend an hour commuting each way. My friends and I in our 30s have seen our commutes skyrocket as we move farther from the city in order to become homeowners, and then add daily school drop-offs/pick-ups to our commutes to/from work (what happened to the school bus being normally available to all kids??).

    I think 8 hours commuting per week, and thus about 49 business days annually, is probably more typical around here...and much more legitimate to get upset about.

  • Doug

    Gen - You are right - in the Bay Area -- a one hour commute each way would be the norm...a huge percentage go 1.5hr or more each way. One hour each way is 62.5 business days - assuming you take a 2 week vacation! Geez - 62 business days in a car or on a train... I need a vacation!

  • Scott Byorum

    Pretty soon we can just sit on our fat @$$es and just twitter each other all day long... oh, wait... that's what we do now anyway.

  • David Gage

    Remember having to study "Supply and Demand" way back when you were in school. Well, once you recall what this is you will most likely also agree that the human animal as it is currently known has outpaced/survived all the other animals on this planet and this has been due primarily from its ability to meet its need to supply its demands. Makes you feel good doesn’t it? Well, now the bad part. We humans are really just a different version of a machine when it comes down to real knowledge and in the next 2 to 3 hundred years the robots we have started to develop today will gradually increase in knowledge and skills to the point that they will be better at this than the humans who are still around at that time. Now, the really bad part is that the most knowledgeable of the animals, machine ones included, will dominate all others and this means that by the year 3000 the human animals will most likely be gone as the machine versions will be much better at survival than we will ever become. Welcome to the real "New World" which awaits the machines of today.