Are robots finally coming into their own? I write this having, once again, been denied a robot for Christmas, something which those endless episodes of Tomorrow’s World convinced me was a shoo-in by this point in the 21st century. Maggie Philbin was no Nostradmus, I now realise. Though he was usually wrong too, and she had nicer hair.
But this week, I read that telepresence robots are now for sale (albeit at $16,000 each): they beam you into your office to hang out with your colleagues. I hesitate to point out that for that kind of money, you could probably pay a student to go in and pretend to be you. But that wouldn’t be the action of someone embracing the future. And, perhaps, paving the way for the robopocalypse, when they eventually rise up against their human oppressors and take over.
Since I have worked from home for years, I don’t really understand the whole office politics thing. But apparently, calling in to your workplace on Skype, visibly still in your pyjamas at 2pm, is not the right thing to do. People equate nightwear in daytime hours with indolence. And they’re getting wise to the pyjama-bottoms with shirt-and-tie combo, too.
The new trick, therefore, is to have a person-sized, wifi-controlled wheeled robot with a videoscreen at the top, sitting in meetings in your place. You have to get up and get dressed: your head will be sitting atop a robot, and that just won’t look right if you’re dishevelled.
Then when everyone goes to have a break and make some tea or nip outside for a fag, your robot goes with them, and you can still hang out with everyone. Unless they go outside the range of the wifi, in which case, your robot self might stop moving altogether, and need to be shunted back to connectivity.
This whole scenario sounds ripe for bullying to me. Not only can your colleagues outrun robot-you, but with only the slightest effort, they can cut you out altogether. Robots aren’t good with stairs, apparently, so all those anti-Dalek strategies your colleagues have been rehearsing can finally come into their own.
Then they will cherry-pick all the nicest biscuits, leaving you to the mangled custard cream from the bottom of the box. What does it matter, they’ll say, meanly. He’s only a robot. He doesn’t need to eat.
And when you find yourself suddenly abandoned, your colleagues will have deliberately gone to hide in that corridor where the wifi doesn’t reach. You’ll have volunteered for all the most boring jobs, because you strangely missed the conversation. Either that, or they’ll really take to the robot, fire you, and keep him. So although guessing the future is a fool’s game, I am happy to predict that telepresence is unlikely to catch on anytime soon.