Robots Are Finally Taking Over, As Promised

Never mind what you've been told or seen in Star Wars, the robot of the future "looks like an extra-large lollipop on wheels." We know this now because Nick Bilton, New York Times tech reporter, has been "baby-sitting" one for three weeks. In one of the more fun assignments in recent memory, Bilton directed the device around the Times offices in what they dubbed a "test-drive," while the real work was left to John Markoff, whose longer feature on the practical uses of robots at work ran on the first page of Sunday's New York Times. The pair of articles at least provided some distraction while we wait for our Runnin' Scared robot to arrive.

Bilton's robot actually seems sort of useful. Sort of:

The robot I adopted, the Texai, is made by Willow Garage, a technology company based in California, and is designed for telepresence. In humanspeak, that means it allows me to take control of the robot remotely and wander around an office, interacting with co-workers and gauging their reactions through the built-in camera and microphone as if I were in the same room.

This allowed Bilton to report "comfortably" from his couch at home. (Welcome to our lives.) The contraption runs on Wi-Fi, through a voice-controlled Skype connection, and batteries, with two cameras, one of which is pointed at the floor, "designed to help me avoid obstacles like trash cans or small children." By Bilton's account, though, the takeover is still a ways away:

During one robot outing a copy editor spoke up and asked if the robot was there to replace her. I assured her that it would be some time before that happened.

Bilton's, dare we say, bloggy take on the robots serves a supplement to the larger feature about the robots' more important uses, other than freaking out colleagues, aided by falling prices. The possibilities are infinite:

Mobile robots are now being used in hundreds of hospitals nationwide as the eyes, ears and voices of doctors who cannot be there in person. They are being rolled out in workplaces, allowing employees in disparate locales to communicate more easily and letting managers supervise employees from afar. And they are being tested as caregivers in assisted-living centers.

Some say it's little more than video teleconferencing, but proponents are more enthusiastic.

"With the robot, I find that I'm getting the same kind of interpersonal connection during the meetings and the same kind of nonverbal contact" that he would get if he were in the room, he said. "It's a lot easier to have harder conversations when I 'roll the robot,' " he added, referring to reviewing an employee's performance or discussing technical issues.

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The biggest complain in both articles? No arms. Still, each story is worth a read:

Dropping Jaws and Stopping Conversations in a Test-Drive [NYT]

The Boss Is Robotic, and Rolling Up Behind You [NYT]


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