Robocommuting

Many years ago I came to the conclusion that telecommuting was entirely feasible for a substantial fraction of the U.S. workforce. Technology wasn’t a problem, even in 1973 when we started formal tests on telecommuting in a live corporation. There were two main reasons for this at the time. First, most of the telecommutable jobs dealt mostly with routine information transfer: data entry, text processing and the like. In our original tests this was done with “dumb” terminals connected to local minicomputers in what we called satellite offices. The minicomputers collected all the keystrokes during the work day and uploaded them to a downtown mainframe at night. The point here was that much information work comprised routine information transfer; the more exotic information activities, those that required similarly exotic computing or communications capabilities, were done by a relatively smaller number of workers.

There was a second reason for my conclusion that 1970s-level technology was not a barrier to telecommuting, that exotic and expensive communications like video conferencing weren’t really necessary for most forms of telecommuting. This was a report from a lab at MIT on a project that investigated the utility of various forms of communication, including video conferencing, on business decision-making. One of the research team’s conclusions was that video conferencing (versus computer conferencing) had no effect on the decision outcomes of the groups studied—although the groups felt more comfortable with the decision reached via video. Certainly video was cool but, at several thousand dollars per hour for a point-to-point hookup that had no effect on the outcome, it wasn’t justified for most business activities below the presidential level.

Now, almost two score years later, the technology situation has changed dramatically. Personal computers arrived on the scene and took over many of the routine information processing tasks. The Internet evolved and broadband telecommunications became routine over much of the world, at least in urban areas. Now we even have:

Robocommuting!

In the September 2010 issue of IEEE Spectrum, Erico Guizzo describes his experiences with telecommuting via robot in an article titled When My Avatar Went To Work. As the scene opens Erico is at home in Brooklyn and his robotic other self is strolling wheeling through the offices of IEEE Spectrum in downtown Manhattan chatting with co-workers and cheerily disrupting their activities. The robot, built by Anybots of Mountain View, California, is but one of several telepresence robots now entering the marketplace and ranging in price from $140 to an annual $50,000 subscription. None of the present collection of ambulatory robots is very anthropomorphic. In fact, Guizzo’s description of his new avatar is: “This is no C-3PO. It looks more like a floor lamp.”

Still, the robocommuter erodes yet another excuse by nineteenth-century-mindset managers that all employees need to be in the office every day. Now that even telesurgery is becoming more routine the ranks of the teleworkable information workers continue to swell. I still maintain that the majority of information work activities don’t require particularly sophisticated technology. But Skype, Facebook, Twitter and the like do make us feel more comfortable about the decision we make.

Don’t they?

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