In 2100 the workplace will look far different from what we see today although we can start peeking into the future by looking at a number of new technologies that are emerging. These innovations speak to a world where telepresence replaces being on the scene. The technology combines robotics, high speed telecommunications, artificial intelligence and avatars.
Anybots, VGo Communications Inc., Xaxxon Technologies, iRobot Corp. and CNRS-AIST JRL are among the pioneers in creating telepresence in the workplace. They are making it possible today to work from home while interacting with others almost anywhere on the planet through machines. Imagine reaching out and touching an object remotely and feeling it through a telepresence interface. That is what some of these technological innovators are bringing to the world of work. We, through them, are being given the ability to be in many places at once, self projecting our presence whether done through one or more robots or through avatars.
Much of the work by these companies is focused on providing telepresence in business offices. But office jobs are not the place where telepresence technology should have its greatest impact. Instead telepresence will happen in workplaces where human direct presence is at extreme risk. What type of places are we talking about?
- Ocean floors, particularly in deep water for servicing cables, drilling seafloor infrastructure, salvage and rescue operations
- Inside nuclear reactors to do maintenance or emergency procedures in the event of an accident
- Inside buildings afire or damaged by earthquakes to perform search and rescue
- Deep mines for mineral extraction where environmental conditions are too extreme for humans to tolerate
- Remote communities for medical intervention to perform routine examinations, testing or surgical interventions
- Outer space and on the surfaces of planets, moons, asteroids, comets and even stars
Space and Telepresence – Going Where No Human Has Gone Before
Ten space agencies have formed a long-term plan for human activity beyond Earth. In every case telepresence and robotics are deemed to play an important role.
In a recent set of comment exchanges with one of my readers he and I have debated the value of human presence in space. He argues that artificial intelligence, robots and telepresence is sufficient for us to explore the Moon, near-Earth asteroids and Mars. He sees no need for actual human presence arguing that the hazards associated with space and the costs represent undue risk and a poor investment. In some respects I agree that human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and long-term habitation of space, the Moon or Mars pose significant risk for those human pioneers who set out to achieve these objectives. But, knowing humans, that won’t stop us from going and being there in person.
But he is right. Telepresence will extend our reach to many areas in space where robots dare to tread and where humans cannot. Even today we experiment with Dextre and robotic arms as ways of extending ourselves beyond the confines of the International Space Station, often limiting the need to don space suits and enter the harsh vacuum that lies outside.
Telepresence will prove to be a very practical way for us to explore Deep Space. It will mean we don’t have to fight deep gravity wells created by planets and large moons. Nor will we need to build and transport fuel and heavy lift rocket technologies which we would need if humans were landing and taking off from these worlds. It will mean less expense in going into space and less risk while there.
We are already reaping benefits from telepresence in space. The technology deployed by Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Curiosity on Mars allow us to experience the planet through these sophisticated machines. This is notable at this time because of the recent landing by Curiosity and our first glimpses of the Gale Crater and Mount Sharp shared with the entire world by a single robotic explorer.
Robots will continue to take our first steps on other bodies in the Solar System just as Surveyor preceded Apollo to the Moon. And robots with much greater capability will allow us to reach the surfaces and walk on Europa, Titan and other worlds in the Solar System, allowing us to see them through these sophisticated technologies.
Beyond exploration in space, what will telepresence provide us? Imagine a team of robots operating semi-autonomously on the surface of the Moon doing a number of tasks. These could include mining for materials like Helium3, or building habitations for future human occupants. The robots could be operated by one or more persons, tied together by a network and capable of implementing almost any contingency in the event something goes wrong. That same approach can be taken to managing an assembly line with multiple robots tied to a single human operator responsible for an entire manufacturing process.
Telepresence and Its Future – the Bottom Line
We are entering the age of telepresence. We, who work from our homes, telecommute using the Internet to interact with colleagues, clients, and friends. Some of us even have assumed virtual presence in worlds like Second Life where we have become avatars that interact for business and recreation. There are great economies to telepresence and as the technology improves not only will space science be the beneficiary but so will those of us working here on Earth.
We will benefit because:
- We will lower our carbon footprint. Telecommuting means fewer commutes and less emissions.
- We will increase productivity individually and collectively. Time we currently spend getting to and from work will be replaced by far more engaging activities than driving.
- Telepresence will allow us to reduce the size of our industrial plants. No need for a big parking lot if more of us can work remotely. No need to have an infrastructure to support a workforce in place when most of us will be interacting virtually among ourselves and with intelligent machines.
- Telepresence will make us virtually mobile. That means whether our factory is here on Earth, or on the Moon or Mars, we physically will not have to relocate because we can be anywhere our machines and telepresence takes us.