A New Way to Work From Home: Telecommute Into a Robot Body

Last year, sci-fi author John Scalzi released Lock In, a novel about a near-future society where people who contract a “lock-in” paralytic disease can still participate in life by using a robot to move around the world for them while they remain at home.

That was the first thing I thought of when I learned about Beam, a robot that looks like an iPad mounted on a remote-control car and is designed to improve teleconferencing. “Why does the iPad need to be strapped to a moveable base?” you might ask. “Our current form of teleconferencing, where you just put the iPad on its stand, works really well!”

Because, as it turns out, there are many more ways that Beam robots can be useful to the economy. As a new story from The Atlantic explains:

[Arika Bunfill] works at the Beam store in downtown Palo Alto, California. Scratch that. Bunfill works from her comfortable home in Vacaville, about 90 miles away. But her presence, via Beam, a teleconference robot that looks like the offspring of a computer and a Segway, roams the floor at what Beam reps say is the world’s first and only unmanned store. That’s right, no human beings work at the store — it’s operated 100-percent remotely by folks like Bunfill.

We are looking into the future here, so let’s imagine the possibilities: Service jobs staffed by freelance workers from across the globe. Location eliminating itself as a barrier to entry; a teen from rural Missouri could end up taking orders at a McDonalds in San Francisco. (If you think that sounds implausible, remember that we’re already doing that at some fast-food drive-thru stations, where the people who take your order operate out of a remote call center.)

We could see scenarios where a busy parent beams into a Beam robot to handle a parent-teacher conference without ever leaving the office. Where grandparents can use Beam for weekly dinners with their grandkids, and adults can use Beam to check up on elderly relatives. Or, to borrow from John Scalzi’s original idea, where people with disabilities or chronic illnesses use Beam to navigate the world while remaining at home. To quote The Atlantic:

Beam says it has one customer, a graduate student at the University of Maryland who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, who is able to attend classes remotely and even walk the halls with classmates using Beam.

Right now, people who operate Beams use screens and controls similar to those in a video game. In the future, we could see Beam combining with an Oculus Rift-style VR helmet to give a Beam user 360 degrees of full immersion. We could see a solitary Beam in front of the Taj Mahal, slowly rotating, or a handful of seats at the Metropolitan Opera House set aside for Beam users.

It is hard to imagine a future with Beam that does not eventually devolve into a world of freelancers in run-down apartments using Beam to complete global service and creative work while wearing pajamas — or pajama bottoms, anyway. Or, on the other end, a world where people are expected to put as much facetime as they can in the office because they can use Beamtime everywhere else. (Imagine a row of Beam robots watching a school play.) Beam’s website proudly states that sick children can use Beam to avoid missing school, but that also means sick adults have no excuse to avoid missing work.

We have a long way to go before we get to the point where everyone will be as happy to see a Beam robot as they are to see a real person, but this signifies a huge possibility shift in the way we approach work and the work-life balance. Would you be interested in using a Beam robot to function as your physical presence while you work from home? Would you want to shop at a store that was staffed by workers remotely operating Beams? Do you like the idea of our inevitable robot future?