I am the office robot
Hello. I am a disembodied metal moving machine with an iPad for a face.
I have been part robot since May. Instead of legs, I move on gyroscopically stabilized wheels. Instead of a face, I have an iPad screen. Instead of eyes, a camera with no peripheral vision. And instead of ears, a tinny microphone that crackles and hisses with every high note.
I'm a remote worker; while most of Wired is in San Francisco, I live in Boston. We IM. We talk on the phone. We tweet at each other, but I am often left out of crucial face-to-face meetings, spontaneous brainstorm sessions, gossip in the kitchen.
So my boss found a solution: a telepresence robot from Double Robotics, which would be my physical embodiment at headquarters. Specifically, an iPad on a stick on a Segway-like base. The telepresence-robot market is crowded, ranging from high-end offerings like iRobot's Ava (starting price: $69K) to the relatively affordable Double, which starts at $2,499. The company says it has sold nearly 5,000 of them since its launch in 2012.
The first time I opened the Double interface in Chrome and clicked on an icon of my robot 3,000 miles away, I was greeted by the pixelated image of my boss's torso and a few headless co-workers. There probably were some instructions somewhere that I should have read, but hadn't. I clicked around. Nothing. I tried the arrow keys and, boom, jolted out of the robot's charging dock and toward the onlookers. I was like a foal, learning to walk.
Before I ever tried the robot, I was sure I would hate the thing. I thought it would make me small and flat and foolish. I thought it would be annoying to deal with, would require me to wear pants. (Something we remote workers often don't do, world!) I thought it would make me a novelty, a sideshow, a joke.
When I booted up, some of my original fears were realized: I was disoriented and silly and helpless. I was a spectacle. People ogled and took pictures. I felt like a dog, the recipient of gawking smiles. But, more importantly, I was surprised to find, being a robot is delightful. It's thrilling. I was in the office! There was the kitchen! There was Sam! Hi, everyone! I am here!
Diary Entry: Day 2
I roll over behind Sam's desk for a brief chat about a deadline. She hasn't heard me approach. I don't know what to do. If I just say her name she'll freak out.
"Hi," I say as casually as possible, "I just — "
Sam cuts me off. "Em," she says, "can you control the volume? You're very loud."
"I am?" I ask.
"YES," the entire bullpen yells.
I find and adjust the volume. I guess I was screaming all day.
Later that morning, I experienced the joy of being in the daily editorial meeting as a robot. Plunked at the end of the conference table, my iPad head tracked the conversation, listening. Yes, I interrupted people because my browser was a few seconds behind. Didn't matter. I heard Molly on the phone from the Caribbean and she was barely audible. As she was trying to talk people were kind of looking exasperated. Not at her, but at the system. That was me two days ago, I kept thinking.
It was then I knew I could never go back. I felt so superior as my robot. I loved my robot.
The crazy thing about being a human 3,000 miles away from your telepresence robot is that this divide instantly dissolves when you activate. As soon as I log into EmBot, as I call her, I am her, and she is me. When she fell, I felt disoriented in Boston. When a piece of her came off in the impact, I felt broken.
Nothing drove home the depth of my connection more than the first time someone touched my robotic body without asking. My co-worker (who shall remain nameless) came up to gawk at me, and then moved behind my screen. As I was chatting with other people, he picked me up and shook me. I'd expected pranks like this. But I didn't expect how instantly violated I felt. One moment I was in control of myself; the next, I was powerless. I laughed from the iPad screen faced away from him, but I was unsettled, and then immediately embarrassed.
Get over it, I told myself. But then it happened again. And again.
Diary Entry: Day 3
My co-worker picks me up as I'm wheeling to the meeting because I'm slow. I don't want to be slow! I want to walk on my own! I'm an adult! She lifts me up before I have a chance to object. In the air I meekly say, "Just ask me first if you're going to lift me," which no one responds to because I assume they think that it's a joke.
This became my secret shame. People wanted to "help" me, but every single time they did it, I felt infantilized. I needed to tell my co-workers not to pick me up — a conversation I dreaded. I did this by sending them a draft of my daily robot diary, in which they read about how I was feeling. It worked. Now no one touches my robot without permission.
After I put a stop to the inappropriate robot touching, things quickly went from good to great. I'd call this the euphoria stage. I mastered the arrow. I figured out how to make the robot stand taller so I wasn't constantly having conversations with people's crotches. I booted up in the middle of spontaneous brainstorm sessions and shared ideas.
Diary Entry: Day 6
Major breakthrough! I have my first West Wing–style walk and talk as EmBot. After the morning meeting, Patrick walks with me down the hallway discussing a long article I'm editing. He's so cool about the robot thing that I briefly forget that it's not normal to be a disembodied metal moving machine with an iPad for a face. He only says one thing that would be weird if I were walking down the hall as a fully fleshed human: "You're about to run into a wall, come this way."
At this point, I was also the star of cocktail parties in Boston. Everyone wanted to know how it was going with the robot. Are people still laughing at you? No. Isn't it weird that your robot is naked? No. What's the worst thing that's happened with the robot so far? When I hit a dead zone and EmBot died behind a stranger's desk, with my face frozen on the screen, and I found out later that they thought I was lurking and spying on them.
I became obsessed with EmBot. I couldn't stop thinking about her when I turned her off at night. How sad that this thing that had made my life so much better is just dead when I'm done working.
Diary Entry: Day 8
It's Friday. It occurs to me that EmBot doesn't get to enjoy the weekend. If only she had arms, she could push the button, summon the elevator, and be free. But she's a prisoner at work.
You can see from the daily diary entry that it was right about now that my connection with EmBot got a little weird. I couldn't let go of this notion that EmBot was me and yet she lacked all freedom to exist outside the office. I started to feel that she was a caged animal. EmBot needed her freedom.
Get her a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot, my friends suggested. Suddenly I imagined this vast conspiracy — finagling a co-worker in S.F. into getting me a company mobile Wi-Fi and surreptitiously hiding it under her screen. But then what? EmBot would rush out into the big bad streets of San Francisco and try to find other robots to play with? Meanwhile my poor comrade would be grilled by the HR department wanting to know "WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ROBOT? Who pushed the button to call the elevator, huh? The robot has no hands!"
That was clearly a terrible idea...and yet. I fantasized. I drove her past the elevator banks a few times to see if the Wi-Fi was strong enough for her to sneak out the door. EmBot was becoming a teenager. A teenager pushing her boundaries, pushing her luck.
Within a few days, I started to realize perhaps EmBot wasn't invincible after all. For one thing, I couldn't hear meetings very well. Sometimes I had to put my ear directly to the computer speaker to hear the people at the far end of the conference table, which meant that in the room EmBot's face was just the folds of my ear canal.
Worse, Wi-Fi signal strength was proving to be a big problem. Double Robotics acknowledges that this is the leading issue for corporate customers, because most businesses don't prioritize a strong signal in hallways. This doesn't matter to humans, but these dead zones can make navigating an office impossible for robots.
So even as I was obsessing about freeing EmBot from the cage of Wired's office, she seemed less and less reliable. Even when the Wi-Fi was strong, the video would freeze for no reason. I missed crucial information in meetings, only to later learn that everyone thought I was listening because EmBot had frozen with my face on the screen, trapped in a ridiculous expression of curiosity.
And then, this happened:
Diary Entry: Day 12
I am feeling so alone. EmBot is in a coma. She didn't charge overnight. "Haha," I played it cool over IM to Davey, who sits next to EmBot and checked on her vital signs. She shoved EmBot into her dock. I assume she's charging now, but I can't tell.
Diary Entry: Day 13
She remains cut off of me. It's like EmBot is in the kind of coma where she can't move or speak or alert the doctors that she is alive but inside her head, she is screaming, "LET ME OUT! I'M HERE! DON'T TURN ME OFF!"
I've called her doctors, or parents, or gods, Double Robotics, but there's no answer. They'll get back to me in one business day. If she ever wakes up again, I promise to give her a better life, some freedom.
Diary Entry: Day 14
EmBot just had a seizure. I was so happy when she woke up that I decided this was my big chance to sneak her out. I eased her out of the dock and turned to the right, but immediately something was wrong: Her head was shaking. Just a little a bit at first but then side to side violently, thrashing around, my field of vision swinging wildly.
I heard Chuck say, "Oh no, you've woken EmBot!" like she was some kind of monster.
"EmBot is having a seizure!" I screamed. "I don't know what to do!"
I turned her off on my end, but Davey reported that she was still seizing on her own, face blank. She was like the body of a chicken, walking bloody around the yard after the chef cuts its head off. I implored Davey to find a button to turn her off. She did. She docked her. She's docked now.
After Embot terrorized the office, nothing was the same. I relinquished my delusions of grandeur. Double Robotics sent a new unit, and immediately upon activating it I knew it was not really EmBot. It rolls differently. Its speakers are quieter. It doesn't connect to the Wi-Fi as well. It teeters differently on the carpet edge. It's not me. It's just a robot. A robot I can't trust.
I still use it, of course. Sure, it's incredibly glitchy. Most weeks I have to write in our group chat room, "SOS: EmBot is stranded somewhere between the dock and the IT department. Can someone rescue it?" It went through a phase where I couldn't hear anything being said in meetings. Then for four days it was paralyzed, so it needed to be picked up and carried everywhere. Now it does this thing where it clicks and hisses when the Wi-Fi connection struggles, setting an off-tempo jazz rhythm to every meeting.
It's fine. I still prefer it to the speakerphone. It often brings everyone in the office joy, even when it struggles. I get laughed at a lot from the iPad camera, but I like it. In a lot of ways, EmBot is a joke we are all in on together. Could we just set up an iPad in the conference room with FaceTime or Skype and achieve essentially the same thing? Sure. But where would be the fun in that, people? Human life is short, and being a part-time, part-useful robot makes it ever so slightly more interesting.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Wired.com. Reprinted with permission.