Companies now produce and sell robots (including the VGo, iRobot’s Ava, and Willow Garage’s Texai) that allow users to navigate through a remote working environment, interacting by means of a computer screen. So far these systems have limited functionality (some dub them “Skype on wheels”), and they’ve mostly been used for high-value problems involving costly experts. InTouch Health’sRP-7, for example, was designed to let doctors remotely diagnose stroke patients, since smaller hospitals often can’t afford a neurologist on staff.
The next wave promises much more capability per dollar. VGo’s robot can’t match the RP-7’s functionality, but at $6,000, it’s already a 12th the price. What’s more, DARPA recently issued arobotic challenge involving a complex set of tasks to be performed by a semiautonomous, remote-controlled humanoid robot—driving, walking through rubble, replacing a valve.
Progress toward the “avatarization” of the economy has been limited by two technical factors that don’t involve robotics at all. They are the speed of Internet connections and the latency involved in long-distance communication. Connecting a Thai worker to a robotic avatar in Japan with enough signal fidelity to carry out nonroutine work may be more difficult than engineering a cheap robotic chassis and related control systems.
How much bandwidth is enough? A “perfect” (just like being there) connection to a robotic telepresence system must accommodate a signal of 160 megabits per second. Theoretically, too, the distance between robot and worker shouldn’t exceed 1,800 miles: any farther and the operator could get confused by the time lag as signals travel round-trip. Realistically, however, avatar workers can probably be effective janitors or doctors even if they are farther away and sensory fidelity is weaker. The VGo runs on Verizon’s 4G network, for instance, and the U.S. military’s drone-control facility in Italy is 2,700 miles from Afghanistan.
High-end users in major U.S. and European cities will reach the 160-megabits-per-second threshold between 2014 and 2015 if current trends hold. Avatar workers are not far behind. Mexico, China, Poland, and Thailand have added 26.4 million high-bandwidth Internet users in the last 12 months. These countries have relatively low labor costs and are close to more developed countries. More than half of U.S. states are within 1,800 miles of the Mexican border; if workers in the Dominican Republic are considered as well, only Alaska and the northern tip of Maine are out of range.
Telepresence means that in theory, 10, 100, or 1,000 times as many workers could compete (virtually) for the same work. No matter how bad things get in Madrid or Houston, an avatar worker somewhere else could sell his or her labor for less. The same outsourcing logic applies to many high-wage jobs that rely on physical presence and motor skills, including the work done by cardiologists and machinists.