VR-controlled Robots could save America

Americans could design, build, and then use VR headsets to remotely operate robots that let us do a larger number of jobs better, creating a new global industry that we can lead.

As the founder of Second Life and CEO of High Fidelity, I’ve spent my career working on virtual worlds and VR, so robots are somewhat outside my area of expertise. But I wanted to throw out an idea that I think lots of different people and companies could start working on, and whose impact could be great for our country. As a country and economy we are on the ropes right now, and I think VR could be used to help make a comeback.

America has earned it’s well-deserved place in history partly by inventing and manufacturing things for the rest of the world — things like cars, or airplanes, or personal computers. We are still making amazing things, but those things are often software, and most Americans aren’t working in the software industry. The social challenges we see today have arisen partly because the economic benefits that come with being involved in creating and building are being experienced by an increasingly narrow segment of our country.

Also, jobs and the populations that want those jobs are no longer as easy to align geographically. Many skilled workers consider their hometowns an important part of their identity. They want an acceptable standard of living while maintaining that identity. Meanwhile, businesses are anxious to consolidate and automate to drive down their costs. The idea of a small factory in a mid-size town no longer makes the most economic sense.

By using VR headsets to remotely control robots, we could create both a new way for Americans to work, and a new industry around robotics. And this could apply to all American workers, not just entrepreneurs or technologists.

The VR headset is the Enabling Change

VR headsets that also have hand controllers are now widely available and are being used mostly for computer gaming. But these headsets could be re-used to create a workstation at home allowing you to slip on a VR headset and be ‘teleported’ into the eyes and body of a robot: Wherever you look, the robot looks. When you move your hands, the robot moves it’s hands. So it is exactly like being somewhere else, except you are ‘in’ the body of the robot. But of course that robot could be much physically stronger than you, or it could be made very large, or very small, or whatever else the job demands. Plus you would be able to talk and listen (through the robot), so you could interact with people or other robots just like in real life. So, for example, a firefighter could rush into a burning house as a robot, and be unaffected by heat or smoke but still able to do his job and save people using the same instincts and training he’d learned over his career.

It has been possible in the past to remote-operate robotic machines, but the equipment is very expensive and requires specialized training — the DaVinci medical robot, shown below, is a good example:

The VR headset changes everything, because it is cheap, available right now, and can be used by anyone, without training. What remains now is to build the robots!

American Innovation

Building remote-operated robots that can operate in different types of industries represents the kind of challenge that American’s excel at — designing and building complicated machines that haven’t been made before. Tons of innovations and patents will go into building these things — different ways of safely walking around as a robot, for example, or specialized attachments to allow for cutting things or seeing in the dark.

And once designed, we will need to manufacture millions of these robots — creating a new heavy industry to build them (maybe with the first-generation robots helping to build the second-generation ones!). Finally, great software will be required to connect to the robots, and we Americans are the best in the world at making software, hands down. If we move quickly, we can lead — we have the natural resources and skills and ambition to do it.

Building a full-on robot firefighter is going to be a challenge and take some time, but inventing and building new machines like that is something American’s have been doing for a long time incredibly well. And there are lots of robots that can be built first to do simpler jobs. For example, a remote-operated robot could load and unload boxes from a truck, or greet and help people in a store. First-generation versions of remotely operated robots could be mounted in trucks or forklifts, not needing to walk around.

The New Work Day

You get started by buying a VR headset for yourself, or alternatively by going to a worksite or internet cafe where headsets are available. You might work for a big company, or alternatively use an online job service that offers more flexibility by letting you pick from short-term jobs available right now.

Operating a physical robot without too much latency/lag (which will make you slower and be less enjoyable) means you will prefer jobs near your home location, but you will still have a huge range — maybe 1,000 miles or more — over which you can work.

Some jobs will require new types of training, but you can take the training classes and get certified using the same VR headset as you use to work.

Let’s say you picked a job unloading materials from a truck at a construction site: You slip on the headset, boot up into a robot, and find yourself standing in the back of the truck (the robot was packed in there ahead of time). As the robot, you climb down from the truck, find the foreman, and get her instructions as to where she wants the materials dropped off. To her, you will be a human-sized robot, with a head that can nod as you look at and listen to her. You work in the same way that you would if you were really there, occasionally checking in with her and even joking around with other workers who are in their own robots, but your arms don’t get tired even when you are carrying a 100 pound crate, because your robot is very strong and runs on rechargeable batteries giving it the ability to lift those boxes over and over for hours without getting tired.

Remote-operating a robot means you don’t have to commute to work. Not only is this great in terms of freeing up hours in your day (for more work if you want), but also a positive impact on the environment and our energy independence, given that commuting takes up an estimated 40% of US automobile use.

Remote-operated robots can make jobs easier and less dangerous. Firefighting, mining, and many types of construction work are examples of jobs that could be made a lot less dangerous by using robots. And because a robot can be stronger and not get tired, you can do repetitive work without fatigue. You can effortlessly carry power tools, for example, or move heavy objects, or go up and down stairs.

Why not just replace people with AI?

Some industries might in the long term have people replaced partially or entirely by AI, but this is going to take a long time, and for some might not happen at all. Remote-operated robots, by comparison, could take on most of these jobs today.

Consider the case of Uber: many people anticipate the day when Uber vehicles will be self driving. But if you unpack each of the different steps required to make that possible, from identifying the specific rider waving at you in a crowd, to finding a place to safely pick up and drop off, to checking that the vehicle itself is clean and ready for the next pick-up, you quickly amass a long list of features that will be taxing or impossible for near-term AI systems. The practical way to achieve a ‘self-driving’ car will likely still need to switch over frequently to remote human assistance — which will probably be done with remote VR operators.

Or consider unloading the contents of a delivery truck into a Wal-Mart… we are nowhere near having AIs that can safely take verbal orders and make reasonable judgements about what to do when the shelf you are unloading onto is blocked by another person, etc. For that matter, we are still a long way from safely backing that truck up to a delivery dock — that job still needs a human, but it doesn’t need a living human sitting in the cab: the truck can be driven to it’s final destination and parked by a remote-operated robot that takes over when the fully autonomous truck pulls off the highway.

Sales assistants or clerks are the same — we are a long ways off from robots smart enough to smoothly interact in a general setting with humans, but remote robots could easily do the job and in many cases be more fun for both people.

A New Global Industry we can lead

If we imagine a robot extending the range and capability of a human worker in the same way that a car does, and at a similar price, the industry for making these specialized machines could be similar to the automotive industry — in which the top 5 companies had nearly 1 Trillion dollars in revenues in 2015. Although countries like China are investing heavily in industrial robotics, the requirement for both software and hardware, innovative design and problem solving, and our historical expertise with cutting edge robotics makes this our race to lose. We should go for it!

As a lifelong entrepreneur, it is tempting to try to find a way to start a new company building these robots and keep these thoughts more to myself, especially given that the software we work on at High Fidelity could be useful in remote-operating the robots. But this is something that feels like such a huge opportunity for our whole economy, and one that for the greatest chance of success would benefit from many American entrepreneurs working on it together, that I wanted to write it all down and get the idea out there with the hope that it sparks inspiration or debate.

And come on — how cool would it be if the next Great American Industry had giant robots!?