Office robots

Now that many employees have broadband at home and, more often than not, PCs that are at least as powerful as their machines in the office, there really are very few technological constraints to home working.

Organisational and cultural constraints are still in abundance, however. A 2010 survey by Internet service provider Lumison found hat business culture is the principal barrier to home and remote working. Three-quarters of the 1,000 respondents agreed that they were more productive when working from home, but 27% said their managers “value being present over being productive”.

Soon, though, technology will be available that its creator claims will overcome this problem, too.

Silicon Valley robotics company Anybots is preparing to launch what it calls a ‘telepresence robot’. The device, named QB, resembles a slightly more primitive version of the Pixar character Wall.E and will be on the market for £10,500 from this autumn.

It has a video camera and screen embedded in its ‘head’, along with a speaker and microphone. The operator controls the robot from their home PC or laptop, directing its movement with the arrow keys. There is also an in-built guidance system, allowing it to steer clear of furniture and people.

“It’s like a videoconferencing system, but you can drive it around,” says Anybots CEO Trevor Blackwell. He explains that it could be used by people working from home or on the other side of the planet. “It’s useful for anyone who needs to work with other people across town or across the world,” he says.

According to Hyoun Park, a researcher at investment analyst Aberdeen Group, QB’s simplistic design would make it a welcome addition to any office environment. “The QB telepresence robot provides the functionality needed for business processes without falling prey to the ‘uncanny valley’ of discomfort associated with fully anthropomorphic robotic builds,” he explains.

Miraculously, Park appears to believe that Anybots could actually make a successful business from selling the telepresence robots. “QB could change the current model for remote interactions in research and development, corporate collaboration, retail, sales and customer service,” he says.

Of course, novel technologies bring with them novel security risks. The QB robots receive their direction over a standard WiFi network. Could this mean that a well-placed hacker might take unauthorised control of a company’s robotic workforce? That would certainly make for some uncanny days at the office.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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