Telepresence robots in a line

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Crucial meeting? Send the robot

Meetings are necessary but come with drawbacks. Luckily, says futurist Ben Hammersley, new advances in technology allow for clever ways to minimise disruption

 

“Hell,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, “is other people.” Luckily for him, he worked mostly as a writer and didn’t need to spend time with anyone or anything but his typewriter. For most of us, however, our businesses mean meetings. It doesn’t matter what line of work we’re in – whether we’re negotiating a sale of a priceless artefact, or greeting a new client with an intriguing mystery to solve – that business happens between people. And those people must meet.

Sometimes these meetings are stressful. We’re starting to learn this from wearable biomonitors. One colleague of mine was recently in an hour-long client meeting where his heart rate never dropped below 130 beats per minute. It was more physically straining than his usual aerobics class.

And while it may one day be considered acceptable to point out that a negotiation was causing your cardiovascular system to work overtime, today it’s not. We just have to have meetings and put up with them. It’s only polite.

Change is here

Fortunately, almost everything about business meetings has changed over the past decade. From suits and boardrooms to hoodies and coffee shops. From entourages of people to table-top collections of devices, the nature of a business get-together is changing as fast as the technology that empowers the rest of the world.

Take artificial intelligence, for example. I meet with plenty of people but, unlike someone in my position 50 years ago, I don’t have a secretary. At least not a human one. My appointments are made by Amy, an AI on a cloud server somewhere. I make the introductions over email, and Amy (who has access to my online calendar system, and knows my meeting preferences), takes over the arrangements, replying to my meeting partner and negotiating venue and time. X.ai, the company that makes Amy and her male-gendered alter ego Andrew, sees this sort of automated assistant as the future of the staff of everyone from top-level CEOs to travelling salesmen.

Amy is great, but she can’t come to meetings with me – she’s only an email address, after all – but it’s not hard to conceive of other technologies pitching up as my assistant. While I already have a few of Amazon’s speech-recognising Echo devices in my home, this year, Amazon will be releasing its corporate version. Promising to integrate seamlessly with your business’s digital systems, Alexa will be able to query them during a conversation, as if your spreadsheets were people.

The last time I saw that sort of thing was on Star Trek, where the captains could address their ships directly to discover their situation. Positioning yourself against your sales target isn’t that different from positioning yourself in relation to the Alpha Quadrant, after all.

A man in a suit talking to a telepresence robot

Robots allow you to speak to your colleagues face-to-face, without needing to be in the same room

 

Messenger meetings

But even Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard still had one hangover from old-fashioned business meetings of the 20th century: everyone had to be in the same room at the same time. Of course, that’s not true anymore. Modern technology makes it very possible to attend a meeting without actually being there.

I’ve been part of many projects where the team members work geographically apart from each other, but meet in a chatroom to push things forward. Slack, the most fashionable of those chat platforms, is practically obligatory for hi-tech new businesses in 2018, even for those with actually physical offices.

Working with people online is psychologically interesting in many ways, not least because someone’s virtual persona becomes more ‘real’ than their in-person behaviour. I can recognise many colleagues solely from their typing speed, or line-break style, or use of emojis and animated gifs – without knowing necessarily what their voices actually sound like, or how tall they are. Our brains fill out the details and flesh online people out into a thicker reality. That, in turn, adds a post-human frisson to the fact that in many of the Slack channels I use, bots and AIs outnumber the humans. The bots that manage my server, and the one that manages my to-do list, are as equally weighted in that reality as genuinely human colleagues. Except that some of the bots, to be honest, are nicer people.

Quality face-time

But what if you prefer to speak to your colleagues face to face, rather than keyboard to keyboard? There’s video conferencing, naturally – whether it’s through your phone’s FaceTime or Skype apps, or using a futuristic (and expensive) ‘telepresence room’ – with ultra-high-definition cameras, and a specific set of furniture and screens exactly mirrored at the other end of the connection.

I never find that very convincing: not only does it feel unnatural, but it centres the meeting on a single screen, and – because of the way you hold your device – makes you look tired. Indeed, in Los Angeles, plastic surgeons have been offering specific Skype-facelifts, where jowls and jawlines are tightened to look good from the typical angle.

Send in the robots

Better are the telepresence robots. They’re video-conferencing units with your face digitally beamed onto a head-sized unit, at an ergonomic height, on a wheeled system that the remote user can pilot around.

I could sit in California and drive a telepresence robot around your office, and it would be as if I (or at least, a very thin, handless, wheel-equipped, version of me) was actually there. I could trundle into meeting rooms and follow my colleagues out and down the corridors. Add to this the faster bandwidth promised by the upcoming 5G standard, and I’d even be able to wheel my avatar alongside them as they leave the office for the bar.

And there’s no reason why I couldn’t control more than one of these devices at the same time, robotically attending a board meeting in one place, checking in with my colleagues in another and enjoying some networking drinks in a third – all without putting on trousers in the fourth. Not a traditionally polite approach to meetings, perhaps, but certainly less stressful.  

 


Ben Hammersley is a British internet technologist, journalist, author and broadcaster, based in London, England