BEAM me up: Robots and the future workplace

By: Jack Bader

My life is busy. But these days, who isn’t? Time is my currency and I work hard to invest it wisely. Family, my business ventures, passion projects, philanthropic efforts, and learning new things – it all requires careful budgeting on my part to meet all of my obligations while still having something leftover for myself in order to just “be.”

I recently had the opportunity to spend some of my budgeted time taking care of a few items all at once: attending an X Prize Foundation meeting in Los Angeles, from my office in St. Louis via a ROBOT. (Talk about learning something new!) Attending as a robot I could “be” at the meeting, see and interact with everyone as if I were there in person, while STILL SAVING TIME! Needless to say, I was more than happy to jump at the opportunity when X Prize offered me a chance to use one of their new technologies, the BEAM robot (www.suitabletech.com) called Bender (a clever nod for all of the Futurama fans out there.)

A look at the control panel (Jack's view) used to operate the BEAM robot

A look at the control panel (Jack’s view) used to operate the BEAM robot

Bender is outfitted with two video cameras at eye-level and a computer screen that is voice-enabled. Once I logged into the robot over the internet away I went: rolling down the hallways, turning corners, backing up – it all took a bit of getting used to. I’m sure avid online gamers would have no problem right out of the gate managing Bender; suffice to say I don’t clock much time gaming, or I am sure I wouldn’t have bumped into a few things.

Being able to stop and talk to people at the X Prize office while on my way to the actual meeting was a surreal sort of experience – akin to Face Time for iPhone users or Tango for Android users. I rolled Bender into the conference room where the meeting was set to take place, positioning my robot self alongside one of the walls right next to the front of the room where the speakers would be. To my surprise, there were actually two other BEAM robots that were attending the same meeting that I was attending, both ‘beaming in’ from elsewhere in the world. We all contributed to the topics at hand, just the same as the participants who were “physically” there and at one point after some maneuvering, we sat and talked amongst our robot selves.

Jack (far right) conversing with two other robot at the X Prize meeting

Jack (far right) conversing with two other robot at the X Prize meeting

After the meeting wrapped, I logged-off of Bender and while I was very impressed with this telepresence technology and the fact it saved me time, I couldn’t help but think of the implications down the road. BEAM robots run about $15k, but with the rapid advancement of the technology, that cost will come down to a level where many people can use this tool.

With the rapid advancement in technology such as the BEAM robots, how will the future workplace look and operate? Will we see a world where instead of an actual human being attending meetings and interacting with colleagues, we see dozens of robots rolling around? Maybe. More businesses are slowly adopting remote and flexible working arrangements for workers and seeing real results; and it’s not just companies who are in the technology space with a workforce spread out across the globe. In addition to improved productivity and higher rates of satisfaction and retention of employees, some businesses are able to forgo traditional workspaces with committed (and sometimes very costly) leases for sub-let spaces or co-working environments – yielding cost savings in operational expenses.

Though you can never replace the actual value of meeting or interacting with someone “in-person,” the BEAM robot technology (and other remote working technologies) can come pretty close. At neteffects, we are seeing a handful of clients slowly dabbling in remote and flexible working arrangements and using tools that support these efforts. While none of them use a BEAM robot (to my knowledge at least), I could see the benefit for large and/or large and publically traded companies where leaders spend a majority of time between offices. Having a robot you can log-into and handle the business matters in an overseas office from the headquarters in the United States is a real advantage. Not to mention the ability to just “pop-in” and see what developments are going on, and interacting with staff of at all levels. (Talk about a way to get face-time with a leader who might have otherwise been hard to reach, let alone know more personally.)

Jack as the "Bender" BEAM robot interacting at an X Prize meeting

Jack as the “Bender” BEAM robot interacting at an X Prize meeting

More connectivity and increased productivity perhaps, but the loss of traditional human interaction is certain. Do I want to see a day where the workforce is entirely automated by robots or run by throngs of BEAM-like robots? No, at least not entirely. Building relationships with people matters. Talking with colleagues over lunch or coffee, having an in-person meeting with clients (wherever possible), sharing a laugh with a stranger in the elevator ride to your floor, is all part of the human experience and vital to our interpersonal communication skills. While BEAM and its cohorts of other robots and tools can come extremely close, nothing can top the real thing.