Will an Avatar Robot Be Your Next Work Colleague?

by Nancy Ordman

The latest advance in telepresence technology could fill vacant jobs in the not-too-distant future. Japanese developers, longtime leaders in humanoid robot development, have already introduced ASIMO from Honda that walks on its own and understands commands, and T-HR3 from Toyota that allows operators to intuitively control the robot’s body.

Going a step, or steps, beyond these machines, avatar robots empower people to be two places at once, virtually. These

Closeup of TELESAR V, Tachi Laboratory. Source: University of Tokyo / CC BY-SA 2.0

machines are the logical extension of existing forms of telepresence technology and considerably more sophisticated than the original telepresence “robots,” which were little more than screens mounted on a pole with wheels. The da Vinci surgical robot, which reproduces a surgeon’s hand motions, is a closer comparison. Humans control avatar robots with virtual reality headsets and haptic feedback gloves, which allow users to see and feel what the remote robot “sees” and “feels.”

A Japanese start-up, Telexistence Inc., focuses solely on developing avatar robots. The idea of telexistence came from Susumu Tachi, an emeritus engineering professor from the University of Tokyo. In Tachi’s vision, a human could be embodied in a robot anywhere, regardless of the distance between human and robot.  For example, Telexistence’s TELESAR V prototype enables an operator to feel fully present in the place where the robot exists. The TELESAR V’s operator experiences tactile, vibration and thermal sensations through the haptic glove.

An impetus for developing these robots in Japan is the dwindling Japanese workforce. A remote operator could run a TELESAR V from anywhere in the world, providing jobs in areas where people need them. For factories and other companies that run around the clock, operators from different time zones could provide seamless coverage around the clock. Additional advantages include eliminating the need for workers to relocate long distances and providing extra hands in potentially dangerous situations, like disaster relief.

"If a telexistence society that can delegate physical functions is realized, the relationship between people and industry and the nature of society would fundamentally change," said Tachi. "No matter where a factory is located, workers would be assembled from the entire country or the entire world, so the conditions for locating factories will see revolutionary changes compared to the past, and population concentration in metropolitan areas can be avoided."

These developments are still at the proof-of-concept stage, garnering an increasing amount of attention from Japanese researchers and potential adopters. Rather than supplanting humans in the workplace, avatar robots could provide employment to people who otherwise might not have access to good jobs.