Posted by: crudbasher | July 27, 2012

When Avatars Hit The Labor Market

I have written before about how information technologies are automating and replacing jobs that people used to do. Most recently I talked about how intellectual tasks are being split up into micro tasks and then farmed out to people around the world. Even so, I still was under the assumption that manual labor tasks would still be done by humans in your neighborhood. (See this post). I mean if you need somebody to come to your house and fix your sink, you will call a plumber right? That’s impossible to outsource right? Uh… wrong.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan the US is using drones to blow suspected terrorists to bits. Irregardless of the morality or militarily effectiveness of this, the technology is completely amazing. The drones are launched by teams in Afghanistan but then are taken over by a pilot in the US or Italy. They are actually flown via satellite from thousands of miles away! It reminds me of what I like to say about online learning: once you separate the teacher and the student physically, it doesn’t matter how far away they are. In this case once you separate the pilot from the plane, it doesn’t matter how far away they are.

This leads me to my topic for today.

Did you see the movie Avatar?

I’m going to assume if you read this blog, then you are familiar with what Avatar is. Basically, in the movie the main character is a human but remotely operates a large blue skinned alien in order to meet the native population of Pandora. They call this remotely operated creature an “Avatar”. As I was watching the movie, I realized that while taking control of another biological creature like that was hard to believe, it was much more believable that we could make mechanical avatars. The drones overseas are avatars in a way.

This then lead to the series of videos I posted yesterday. It shows how much better mechanical systems are getting in terms of fine motor control. Machine senses are already better than humans in a lot of ways. They can see and hear much better than we can. Their problem is in terms of interpreting what they take in but that is only a problem if they are computer controlled.MIT doctoral student Matt Beane has written an article in Technology Review where he talks about the effects of an Avatar economy.

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

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.

I bet we will shortly be able to make mechanical avatars that will be more capable than human bodies. This then leads to some interesting ramifications. Imagine the following scenarios:

  • Firefighters can stay in their station house and remotely control their firetruck. Upon arrive at the fire, the truck will dispatch a variety of firefighting robots, each guided by the firemen. This system means the firefighters won’t have to risk their lives and can be more effective because the robots have better sensors and capabilities.
  • Police are already using bomb disposal robots that are controlled at the scene. It won’t be long before they are controlled at a central location by experts.
  • What about a telepresence vacation? Say after work you rent some time on a remote operated submarine on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia? We already have a network of webcams online; these would just be mobile versions.(go here to remotely operate a webcam in Virginia.) It might be possible to input artificial senses via Internet. After all, our brain operate on electrical impulses.
  • There is an X-Prize right now for landing a remote rover on the Moon in a few years. Imagine a network of those which you could rent to drive.
  • Even your plumber could be a teleoperated robot with all sorts of specialized equipment built in.
  • Teachers can guest lecture around the world. (if physical lectures still actually exist)

Now here’s where it gets scary. From the article:

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.

This means that using virtual bodies we can outsource pretty much everything else to the rest of the world. If you think of the implications of this it means much more disruption of society than even what I though was going to happen. I try really hard not to rule things out but I have to admit this one caught me off guard.

What do you think, does it seem plausible?

PS there was a recent movie called Surrogates that dealt with a society in which everyone stayed at home and operated robot bodies. It was pretty good!


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