Karl Lautman remembers when he first saw Justin.tv, Justin Kan’s experiment in constant video self-casting, back in 2007. Kan walked around with a backpack full of gear in order to get the bandwidth necessary to reliably stream images, but it was a one-way feed: Viewers couldn’t talk back to Kan. Lautman instantly wondered at what might be possible if viewers could communicate with Kan while he self-casted, steering Kan to do this, try that—Justin.tv crossed with Choose Your Own Adventure. But Lautman realized the tech just wasn’t there yet to enable his vision.
Years later, when ubiquitous 4G networks and cell phones appeared on the horizon—tech Lautman knew would enable new abilities to reliably stream massive amounts of video—Lautman thought back to his Justin.tv modification idea. He began building his vision, Zabosu, whose Kickstarter campaign for what Lautman terms "remote-controlled humans" kicks off today. (Zabosu is Japanese for "The Boss.")
Something like a sci-fi Task Rabbit, Zabosu works like this: One person, called a "Director," decides she wants something done somewhere in the world where there’s a 4G signal. More than that, this "Director" decides that she doesn’t just need something done for her, she needs to basically be in that other place, in surrogate form. Through the Zabosu online marketplace, she contracts an "Actor" to be that surrogate. The Director specifies the task, the Actor sets a rate, and the two set about negotiating. Ultimately, the Actor will stream live video and audio straight to the Director, and the Director can communicate with the Actor via a microphone and earpiece.
Lautman is quick with examples (while eager to note that these are just a few possibilities): Maybe you want someone to attend the MacWorld conference on your behalf, and figure you could save a lot of money and flights and hotels by simply sending someone in your stead to be your eyes and ears. Maybe you have a lead on a new office space, but don’t have time to check it out. Maybe you have a lead on four office spaces, and want to hire four people to check them out simultaneously, achieving for yourself the proverbially impossible feat of being in multiple places at once.
Nice, in theory. But doesn’t the idea of a "remote-controlled human" sound a little insidious, like something out of the plot of The Manchurian Candidate or dystopian sci-fi? Lautman confesses to having used a bit of eyebrow-raising language deliberately ("I was trying to come up with something that was both accurate but also caught people’s attention," he says), but he insists there’s nothing askance or unethical here. "Unlike in The Manchurian Candidate, the ‘Actor’ doesn’t sacrifice his or her free will," he says. "You enter into a commercial arrangement, you agree to do what you’re told to do for a limited period of time, but if the Director tells you to walk in front of a truck or accost someone, you’re entitled to decline. And we have the right to review whether the Actor was behaving prudently, or whether they were chickening out, as it were."
If the Manchurian Candidate analogy is off, then Lautman has to acknowledge that there are other pop cultural representations of the sort of thing he’s trying to pull off. Has he seen Arrested Development, I ask? He hasn’t, but friends have told him about a character who plays a "surrogate" using an earpiece and head-mounted camera. And has he seen Her? He hasn’t caught that one either, but he’s aware that an AI employs a woman to act as a sexual surrogate. And he hadn’t heard of Synecdoche, New York, the Charlie Kaufman film in which Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character essentially outsources his will to a Director-like figure played by Diane Wiest, who delivers commands to his earpiece.
Lautman sees that the idea is in the atmosphere, but thinks that now is the moment the technology has finally aligned, and that "as far as I know, we’re the first company to bring all these things together in this particular format in a way that you can really use—not just for TV and movies, but as a real service you can go out and buy. You can effectively step into a person halfway around the world."
Lautman is the first to admit that he doesn’t know how many ways people will sign up to use his invention, or whether Zabosu will ultimately wind up having been more of an experiment than a viable business. He thinks, though, that the range of possibilities are limited only by users’ creativity.
In the end, it could be the last possible use case that Lautman mentions that is most viable: what Lautman calls "a sort of inversion where the person being controlled is actually the one paying the money to be controlled." He explains further: You might need to fix a refrigerator or a carburetor, say, and would rather have someone with the expertise talk you through the fix over the phone, than pay that person to come out himself. "They’ll walk you through a very detailed operation that’s simple for them, but completely mystical to you, and you solve a problem that way that you weren’t able to solve before."
If you, like me, recently shelled out hundreds to a refrigerator repairman when a fix might have been effected on your own, then the idea of a marketplace for remote-controlled humans begins to sound just dystopian enough.
[Image: Flickr user Erin Nekervis]