The Robot in the Next Cubicle

Between the global economic downturn and stubborn unemployment, the last few years have not been kind to the workforce. Now a new menace looms. At just five feet tall and 86 pounds, the HRP-4 may be the office grunt of tomorrow. The humanoid robot, developed by Tokyo-based Kawada Industries and Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Sciences and Technology, is programmed to deliver mail, pour coffee, and recognize its co-workers’ faces. On Jan. 28, Kawada will begin selling it to research institutions and universities around the world for about $350,000. While that price may seem steep, consider that the HRP-4 doesn’t goof around on Facebook, spend hours tweaking its fantasy football roster, or require a lunch break. Noriyuki Kanehira, the robotic systems manager at Kawada, believes the HRP-4 could easily take on a “secretarial role…in the near future.” Sooner or later, he says, “humanoid robots can move [into] the office field.”

Robotic workers aren’t completely new. General Motors (GM) employed one on an assembly line in 1961, and—according to World Robotics, an annual report produced by the Frankfurt-based International Federation of Robotics—there are currently 8.6 million robots in use around the world. Many of them have been doing jobs that humans can’t do in places humans can’t go, such as plugging oil leaks in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of breakthroughs in technology, however, a new breed of machines may soon be filing papers and pushing the mail cart. In a 2007 issue of Scientific American, Bill Gates predicted that the future would bring a “robot in every home.” In the foreseeable future, though, it may be a robot in every cubicle—or at least every third cubicle.

Industrial and technological companies across the globe are already hard at work trying to make this a reality. The QB, a “remote presence robot” created by Anybots, based in Mountain View, Calif., is basically a videoconferencing system on wheels. The QB, which looks a little like Wall-E, is controlled remotely through a Web browser and keyboard, allowing managers to virtually visit satellite branches from the comfort of their offices. The $15,000 QB was unveiled in May, and according to Anybots’ founder, Trevor Blackwell, sales are in the hundreds. “Everyone already has videoconferencing,” says Blackwell. “Yet planes are still full of people traveling for business. We’re trying to find a way to solve that problem.”

For around the same price, Smart Robots, based in Dalton, Mass., offers a more ambitious office robot called the SR4. Models range from an $7,495 SR4 Professional to the $18,950 SR4 Office, which resembles R2-D2 with a clear glass top. Joe Bosworth, Smart Robots’ chief executive officer, says the SR4 is just as smart as C-3PO’s little buddy. “I would describe it as a gofer,” he says. “A point-to-point robot should be able to go from any desk to any desk within a multistory office. It should be able to take mail down to the mailroom and then travel across the street to pick up a latte.” Bosworth, who has been involved with Smart Robots since 2002, anticipates criticism from those claiming the SR4 is just a fancy way of replacing human employees. “Are there humanoids—sorry, humans—who do these kinds of things in larger offices? Absolutely,” Bosworth concedes. “Is this intended to displace them entirely? Not really. But does it in fact save some labor in certain circumstances? Yes.”

For businesses with deeper pockets, there’s the PR2, a “personal robot” developed by Willow Garage, a robotics research group in Menlo Park, Calif., founded by Scott Hassan, one of the original architects of the Google (GOOG) search engine. PR2 officially hit the market last September for $400,000, and Samsung became one of its first customers. Unlike more affordable office robots, the five-foot-tall, two-armed, rolling PR2 can do remedial problem solving, open doors without instruction, and plug itself into a wall socket when its battery is running low. And as seen in Garage’s video demonstrations, it can fetch a beer from the fridge and play a mean game of pool. Soon enough, people won’t even need real friends.

When it comes to trepidation about robots entering the workplace, Tim Smith, a spokesperson for Willow Garage, takes a historical approach. “People always seem to fear new technology,” he says. “I suspect Ben Franklin got a lot of grief when he started the post office and suddenly the government knew where everybody lived.” Like them or not, Willow Garage is betting that once robots enter the workforce, companies won’t ignore the technology. “When you add a mobile-manipulation robot like the PR2, things get really exciting,” says Joshua Smith, an associate professor of science and engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. “A robot makes it possible for software to move objects around and change the physical state of the building.” Notes Willow Garage’s Smith: “If the U.S. wants a hand in this market, now isn’t the time for restrictions on robots based on silly, ungrounded fears.”

Hyoun Park, an analyst at the Boston-based technology research firm Aberdeen Group, agrees that there’s nothing to fear from robots but fear itself. “The current state of robotics is less suited to replacing employees in a downturn,” he claims, “and more suited to the cliché of doing more with less.” Not everyone believes the coming nuts-and-bolts workforce is completely benign. Entrepreneur Marshall Brain—that’s his real name—says robots will become widely available by 2030 and could eventually take nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. “We’ve been very busy creating the second intelligent species,” he says.

Brain, who sold his website HowStuffWorks to the Discovery Channel for $250 million in 2007, suggests that robots are a threat to employees at all levels on the corporate totem pole. Even higher-level thinking—the very quality that many managers say separates them from their staff and from artificial intelligence—can be broken down into easily replicated formulas. “Management is one area where a dispassionate robot that’s able to disperse tasks and evaluate employee performance in a perfectly rational way might do a better job than a human,” he says.

The office robot is closing in on upper management-level skills with surprising speed. At Georgia Tech, research engineer Alan Wagner has been collaborating with professor Ronald Arkin on cracking the code of robot intelligence. According to Wagner, their research aims “to build robots that can not only interact with humans but are also capable of representing, reasoning, and developing relationships with others.” They developed an algorithm that, they claim, allows robots, just like CEOs, “to look at a situation and determine whether [it] requires deception, providing false information, to benefit itself.” Basically, they taught robots how to lie.

This potential for duplicity may be even more alarming to human employees who might one day lose their jobs to a gang of Wall-E doppelgängers. Yet Smart Robots’ Bosworth insists that the rise of ever-more sophisticated robots offers a sliver of hope to minions everywhere. “Technology makes jobs, it doesn’t do away with jobs,” he says. Bosworth points to the invention of the television, which created a new industry in television repair. He predicts that there’s a fortune to be made in preventive robot maintenance. This isn’t the best news for those with bigger career ambitions than being grease monkeys for robots. Though in a market where robots may be taking all the good jobs, work is work, right?

Source | Business Week

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