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The Avatar Economy: Are remote workers the brains inside tomorrow's robots?

July 19, 2012 | William Zimmerman
Telepresence Robots - Comparison
By Matt Beane, MIT's Technology Review via ISPR

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

In our economy, many of the jobs most resistant to automation are those with the least economic value. Just consider the diversity of tasks, unpredictable terrains, and specialized tools that a landscaper confronts in a single day. No robot is intelligent enough to perform this $8-an-hour work.

But what about a robot remotely controlled by a low-wage foreign worker?

Hollywood has been imagining the technologies we would need. Jake Sully, the wheelchair-bound protagonist in James Cameron's Avatar, goes to work saving a distant planet via a wireless connection to a remote body. He interacts with others, learns new skills, and even gets married--all while his "real" body is lying on a slab, miles away.

Several elements of this scenario are no longer science fiction. Companies now produce and sell robots (including the VGo, iRobot's Ava, and Willow Garage's Texai) that allow users to navigate through a remote working environment, interacting by means of a computer screen. So far these systems have limited functionality (some dub them "Skype on wheels"), and they've mostly been used for high-value problems involving costly experts. InTouch Health's RP-7, for example, was designed to let doctors remotely diagnose stroke patients, since smaller hospitals often can't afford a neurologist on staff.

Outsourcing Control of Telepresence Robots

Big targets: Low-wage workers may one day operate robots in other countries. Here, an 1,800 mile range of operation is shown for various outsourcing centers. At longer ranges, time delays would make controlling robots more difficult.

The next wave promises much more capability per dollar. VGo's robot can't match the RP-7?s functionality, but at $6,000, it's already a 12th the price. What's more, DARPA recently issued a robotic challenge involving a complex set of tasks to be performed by a semiautonomous, remote-controlled humanoid robot--driving, walking through rubble, replacing a valve.

Progress toward the "avatarization" of the economy has been limited by two technical factors that don't involve robotics at all. They are the speed of Internet connections and the latency involved in long-distance communication. Connecting a Thai worker to a robotic avatar in Japan with enough signal fidelity to carry out nonroutine work may be more difficult than engineering a cheap robotic chassis and related control systems.

How much bandwidth is enough? A "perfect" (just like being there) connection to a robotic telepresence system must accommodate a signal of 160 megabits per second. Theoretically, too, the distance between robot and worker shouldn't exceed 1,800 miles: any farther and the operator could get confused by the time lag as signals travel round-trip. Realistically, however, avatar workers can probably be effective janitors or doctors even if they are farther away and sensory fidelity is weaker. The VGo runs on Verizon's 4G network, for instance, and the U.S. military's drone-control facility in Italy is 2,700 miles from Afghanistan.

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