I was in the Bay Area last week for a conference, and was able to take some time to visit my friend Ted Selker, an inventor living in Palo Alto. It was a sunny day in the 70s. In February. Knowing that gloating is among the most satisfying of feelings, I was sure to show him pictures of snow-drowned Boston. We had lunch in an open-air cafe and strolled down University Avenue. It’s a modest suburban street lined with low buildings. You would never know that Palo Alto is the blazing heart of Silicon Valley, with more inventors per capita (1 out of 30 Palo Altans received a US patent last year) than any other city in the world, except Redmond.
But then you see this jammed between two buildings:
They put their snazziest store in their home town. We wandered in and were chatting about the recent New Yorker piece about Jonathan Ive, Apple’s lead industrial designer. “Yes, the luckiest guy in the world,” said Ted.
“Really?” I replied. “They said Ive had obvious talent even as a kid. How often do you see some object and go ‘ah!’ the way you do with all this stuff?”
“Yes, but he found someone in Steve Jobs who actually appreciated that talent, and could really let it shine. The world is full of talent, but not much of it finds its niche.”
True enough. We strolled on, and Ted said “Here’s a place you have got to see.” It was a shop that looked almost bare. There were some sofas and a coffee table in the back, but the rest was open carpet. There were some odd devices against the wall though. We walked in, and one of them came to life!
It was a BeamPro telepresence robot built by Suitable Technologies. An operator can drive it around with a touch pad. It has a camera and screen a little below eye level, so it doesn’t feel superior to you. We chatted with the charming Katherine, who was driving it from her home in the East Bay.
They’re intended for tele-conferencing, to avoid exactly the kind of business travel that I was on. Instead of being stuck in some video-conference room, a visitor could roll around and see something of what their hosts’ place looked like. As Aristotle discovered with his Peripatetic School, people think and speak better when they can walk around. That’s what Ted and I were doing, after all.
This big version goes for a few thousand bucks (although it can be leased), and there’s a couple-thousand dollar consumer version that lets a tech-savvy grandmother see the kids:
The Beam+ has lower resolution video, a smaller display, and less battery life. Both systems charge themselves on those docking stations on the floor, but can’t yet drive themselves in there on their own. There’s a down-pointing camera that lets the operator guide them in.
One problem with them is lighting. We could see Katherine very well because she had set up desk lamps around her screen to get a nice even illumination, but our faces were lost in the glare from our receding hairlines from the overhead lighting. There should be some LEDs around the display to help that, just like the bulbs around an actor’s makeup mirror. There was also some warping from the fisheye lens, but that’s a GPU software update.
These kind of robots may also ultimately be a solution for a problem that Palo Alto itself has – workers can’t afford to live here. If you make less than $100K a year, it’s hard to live anywhere in the Valley. This naturally causes resentment. I saw this myself on a previous night when I was going to dinner in San Francisco and was wearing my conference uniform of a navy blazer. A street person with a beard down to his chest yelled at me: “Silicon Valley a–hole!” True Valley sorts would never wear a jacket, but he was right overall – I am exactly the sort of person who would be driving rents up to impossible levels. Yet if people like me were running San Francisco, we would find places for crazy people to live instead of them forcing them to sleep on sidewalks and yell at strangers.
Anyway, telepresence robots could actually start doing things if they had arms. With current robot arms it wouldn’t be safe to have them near people, but there are new designs such as the Baxter production bot from Rethink Robotics that use compliant springs instead of hard motor drives, and so are much safer to have near people. Such robots could do the housework and yardwork instead of forcing people to drive two hours each way from a town they can afford to live in. They could also do 20 houses a day instead of having to spend time trudging between them.
This was the plot of the interesting SF movie “Sleep Dealer” (2008), where Mexicans work driving robots in the US instead of doing manual labor. That was dystopic, but it might actually work out well. And that future is nearer than we think, given what I saw in pleasant Palo Alto.