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Robots in the workplace: freaky or fun(ctional)?

I came across this story about a “tele-robot” via Twitter, and I didn’t know what to expect when I clicked through.

robotI like robots. I’ve read many of Isaac Asimov’s robot detective books. I had this thing when I was a kid, not to mention this and this. I hoped the article might be about something like this handy guy. Instead, it was one of these things. Still, I wasn’t disappointed. It can’t bring you a coffee, but it can walk around and order someone else to get you a coffee. Well, the person controlling it can.

Isaac Asimov, The Jetsons and many other scientific, literary and entertainment sources in the past 60+ years predicted that robots would be commonplace at home and work by the present time, and to a certain extent, they were right. Automatons joined manufacturing processes in the 1960s, mainly on assembly lines, and continued advances in robotics have led to their use in numerous applications, including “assembly and packing, transport, earth and space exploration, surgery, weaponry, laboratory research, and mass production of consumer and industrial goods.”

But besides the Omnibot, its relatives and some chore robots, like the Roomba, robots haven’t found their way into offices and homes in the same way. I guess we just haven’t figured out how to make a robot more efficient at office or household tasks than a person—at least not in a cost-effective way.

The makers of the Texai “Remote Presence System” robot might have found the application. The Texai performs a task that a worker simply can’t do: it allows someone to be in two places at once. This is almost necessary in a work climate where employees often work remotely (either from home or from a satellite office) or where work takes place at more than one location, in a different city or a different country.

Essentially, the robot acts as the eyes, ears, voice and physical presence of a worker, who controls it from a remote computer. This means the worker can be in a remote office, at home, in a café or on the beach. The robot has a screen that shows the user’s face and wheels to move itself around. The key is to improve interpersonal contact between workers in distant locations. The robot does this better than static video conferencing because it has a real presence in meetings and conversations.

One test user says that when his robot is present in a room, his co-workers interact with him more than when he is simply teleconferencing, and he feels more present. “It’s a lot easier for them to remember I’m there,” he said.

In addition, when he is moving the robot around the remote office, co-workers stop him to chat about what they’re working on and ask questions that they might otherwise not have. “Every time he’s used the robot—about four to six times a week for the past two months—he’s had at least one useful conversation he wasn’t planning on having.”

At the moment, the robot is in limited use, but according to the Star article, it has been accepted by most who encounter it, and the user experience is good.

So, it might still have limited application in most office environments, and we’ve yet to see whether the idea catches on. (I’m still waiting for holographic projections to let me work remotely. And where are those virtual worlds we heard so much about a couple of years ago?) I mean, can you imagine a whole office full of robots, with their users all working from home?

But I’d sign up if it would allow me to spend my work days on the beach! And at least these robots aren’t likely to take away anyone’s job.

What do you think: freaky or functional? How would you feel if you saw one of these robots—or any robot for that matter—rolling around your office?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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