The avatar economy

Are remote workers the brains inside tomorrow's robots?
July 19, 2012

iRobot’s mobile robotics platform Ava (credit: iRobot)

A robot remotely controlled by a low-wage foreign worker could soon compete with some U.S. workers,  suggests MIT doctoral student in information technology Matt Beane in Technology Review.

Companies now produce and sell robots that allow users to navigate through a remote working environment, interacting by means of a computer screen.

The next wave promises much more capability per dollar. DARPA recently issued a robotic 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 the speed of Internet connections and the latency involved in long-distance communication.

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.

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.

Telepresence means that in theory, ten, a hundred, or a thousand times as many workers could compete (virtually) for the same work. 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.

Beane believes outsourcing of nonroutine labor via robotic telepresence could begin to occur on a mass scale within a decade.