The Trials of Telepresence

The Trials of Telepresence

iPad robots

We at DFC chuckled along with most of the audience of Community’s “Laws of Robotics & Party Rights” episode, in which the inherent hilarity of telepresence robots is exploited by h aving a convicted felon attend Greendale Community College via “an iPad on a stick,” and ineffectually try to murder Jeff Winger.(Seriously, convict Willy’s facial expression as his gentle bumps fail to send Jeff flying down the stairs is worth the price of admission!)

But, now that the idea has had the chance to mellow, some actual early adopters are reporting back from the real-world, showing us what may be the new new way of going to work.

These fearless folks include Emily Dreyfuss, who has documented her remote working experience from her desk in Boston, into a telepresence robot at her employer Wired’s headquarters in San Francisco. Dreyfuss’ avatar, which she dubs “EmBot,” is a Double, the model of telepresence robot sold by Apple and used in the above Community episode.

At first, things go well. Dreyfuss is struck by how in the office she feels: closer to brainstorming sessions, impulsive visits with her editor, and behind the scenes chats. But there are also benefits to the distance: in particular, since the attached iPad shows only her face, no one she works with is visibly presented with the fact she is very pregnant — a physical state she has seen change relationships between coworkers before.

But then, spotty Wi-Fi and a malfunctioning unit conspire against her. One day at work, EmBot begins shaking violently:

“ ‘What is happening?’ Davey cried from her desk.

‘EmBot is having a seizure!’ I screamed into the computer. ‘I don’t know what to do!’ […]

I turned her off on my end, but Davey reported that she was still seizing on her own, face blank. She was like the body of a chicken, walking bloody around the yard after the chef cuts its head off. I implored Davey to find a button to turn her off. She did. She docked her. She’s docked now.

My heart won’t stop beating. Maybe EmBot is corrupted and corroded and my time with her is over. Maybe EmBot is a monster. I feel like I just had a seizure.’”

Dreyfuss’ physical connection with EmBot, so positive when first created, is a source of anxiety when EmBot fails. Like all human connections with technology, hers has a bright side and a dark side; and I wonder, if we are to have a seamless telepresence experience in the workplaces of the future, who needs to evolve more — the human or the robot?

June 2016 update: The folks who make Double have informed me that their first iteration, has been discontinued and Double 2 has taken its place. Here is an updated link to Apple for the iteration, Double 2.