Telerobotics Crossing the Uncanny Valley?

In a recent BBC News article surveying some of the technologies that are enabling remote telepresence, the work of Osaka University professor, Hiroshi Ishiguro, stands out as a novel approach to overcome the challenges of non-local communication.

Ishiguro has developed the Telenoid R1, a telerobotic surrogate that can be driven by remote.  The Telenoid is a mostly featureless head & armless torso that uses a webcam to transmit and display voice, facial expressions, and head movements from the remote operator.  Ishiguro believes that the robot delivers a better sense of presence by providing a solid, animated form and suggests that the simplicity of its physical features offers a canvas onto which others naturally project psychological realism.

“Eye contact and head movements are important for everybody. But we also gave the robot a minimal design, so that people can use their imagination to make it more personal,” Ishiguro says.

The Telenoid R1 presents a fascinating example in the ongoing examination of the ever-blurring line between reality and simulacrum. The proposition is that by breaking out of the 2D screen, a remote operator can actually become more present and real by inhabiting a robotic vessel. Ishiguro’s work further suggests that the challenges of the Uncanny Valley may actually be surmountable to some degree by simply allowing people to psychologically humanize the bland-but-expressive face of their robotic counterparts.

The Anybot, developed in Mountain View, California, offers another example of the incursion of robotics into the workplace as telepresence surrogates. As Anybots CEO, Trevor Blackwell suggests, “it’s a solution to the problem of how to work more effectively in a globally distributed company”.

The Anybot is a simple head with a screen, camera, and microphone mounted on a neck-high pole with two wheels. The remote operator can drive the vehicle, monitor the surroundings, and interact with others. The device is marketed to remote managers who wish to have more presence and embodiment across distant work environments. Indeed, the physicality and freedom of movement that the Anybot provides enables a manager to directly monitor and confront the workforce from anywhere in the world.

“This really starts bringing robotics more into human interaction,” said Hyoun Park, an analyst at Aberdeen Research.

The Anybot and the Telenoid R1 extend human functionality through a remote robotic surrogate while simultaneously blending the capabilities of both. This blending of human & robot through telerobotics subtly modifies our understanding of interpersonal communication by extending our humanity to include a machine interface. In doing so, it further softens and humanizes robotics, perhaps conditioning us to be more comfortable with their growing presence in our lives.


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