“Digital immigrants” in other countries could soon guide robots around your house

[From New Scientist]

Robot sitting at your kitchen table

[Image: Who are you looking at? (Image: Yves Gellie/Picture Tank)]

Will remote-controlled robots clean you out of a job?

“Digital immigrants” in other countries could soon guide robots around your house. Some find that creepy – and that could be just the start of the trouble

04 December 2014
Magazine issue 2998

The death of distance. That was the great promise of the internet in its early days: by making cheap, immediate communication possible around the world, it would eliminate geographical constraints on relationships, media and commerce.

Twenty-odd years later, much of that promise has come to pass: all manner of work is now done remotely. Call a helpline and your query might be answered by someone halfway round the world; buy a book and it might be delivered from a warehouse on another continent. But pockets of labour have remained the preserve of humans – mostly those that involve the “last mile”, where, say, parcels must be delivered or premises cleaned.

Perhaps not for much longer. Faced with the difficulty of developing genuinely smart robots, people are exploring the idea of having humans guide relatively dumb machines. Trials are under way with cleaning robots, but it is not hard to see how the same technology could be used to outsource all sorts of jobs, from receptionists to care workers.

Robotics thus has the potential to help countries that are short of labour by, in effect, importing virtual workers – if it can win public acceptance.

That will be challenging. Outsourcing has already caused economic and political upheaval; farming out yet more blue-collar work to “digital immigrants” who undercut the natives is likely to be no less disruptive.

Many of the jobs that are in the roboticists’ sights are already done by immigrants. In the UK, that largely means people from poorer parts of the European Union, whose increased presence in the country is stoking anti-immigration hysteria. How digital immigrants will be received is impossible to predict.

Those whose jobs are on the line, meanwhile, will be hostile: a report from the University of Oxford last year suggested that as many as half of all jobs in the US could be at risk from automation and computerisation.

We are likely to see cultural difficulties arise, too. Anyone who has been shuttled from one operator to another on a helpline will understand why: the lack of a human bond engenders mistrust, and differences in etiquette can quickly foster discontent and even xenophobia. This has already begun to manifest in telerobotics tests, when early users of a cleaning service reported being “creeped out” by the idea that an anonymous stranger might be viewing them and their property through the eyes of a robot.

So researchers are now working on ways to make telerobotics more customer-friendly (see “Cleaning bot operators get censored view of your home“). Ingenious though these are, they are open to the criticism that they are over-engineered solutions to simple problems. People trust their cleaners because they can interact with them; creating an elaborate technological solution to recreate that trust might seem overkill.

But that resistance may not last. The millennial generation, people who have grown up with video calls and instant messages, may have fewer qualms about dealing with the disembodied, particularly if introduced to telepresence in education or at work before allowing it into their homes.

For now, geography will still make a difference for those who need to press flesh and make eye contact before they can work with someone else. So reports of the death of distance have been greatly exaggerated. But that won’t be the case for long.


This article appeared in print under the headline “A stranger in your place”

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