Last weekend the new iPhone 6S debuted with record sales, and a robot named Lucy was among the first ‘people’ to purchase it.
Lucy is what is known as a telepresence robot, essentially a remotely controlled Segway with a screen propped on top of it. Though these robots have been mostly marketed toward businesses looking for a more interactive way to telecommute, they have also made the news for allowing disabled and hospital-confined children to attend school remotely.
But like all good inventions, telepresence robots can be exploited for evil purposes — or in this case, lazy purposes. Internet commenters grumbled at this story of a woman who instead of waiting in the rain like the rest of the campers, sent a pricey robot controlled by an app on her iPad in her stead. No one waiting in line with Lucy contested her spot, and many a laughing passerby doubtlessly saw the move as ingenious — after all, who can blame her? Nevertheless, this Apple-loving robot drew criticism for not only being lazy, but for signifying everything that is wrong about today’s tech-savvy youth: they are isolated from human interaction, and they worship trendy technology.
As it turns out, Lucy the Apple-loving robot was in fact not piloted by an ‘entitled’ millenial-scapegoat for our anxieties about technological change, but by a marketing executive as part of a publicity stunt. What’s more, she wasn’t the only one: a rival robotic company sent their the less charmingly named Beam+ Smart Presence System to buy an iPhone in California. These companies’ desperate grabs for attention are equally eye-rolling, but they nonetheless raised some compelling questions: who are the consumers who are going to buy these fancy robots, and for what purposes?
Commercial robots are not by any means a new phenomenon — robotic vacuums have been on the market for a decade now. But the fact remains that robots are still expensive: the newest Roomba is currently on the market for $900. So does this confirm what the Internet hive mind has been shouting: that robots are for the rich and lazy? Well, no, the benefits of robots are far more wide-r
eaching. You can’t stop a person with a paycheck from purchasing a robot to go shopping for them (and really, you can’t blame them either); however, you simply can’t ignore the altruistic possibilities of a robot whose primary purpose is to perform tasks for human beings.
The paranoia that humans may become too reliant on technology — a perfectly genuine and valid concern — must also be tempered by the simple fact that for some humans, technology helps them regain some of the agency they rightfully deserve. Last year a telepresence robot allowed a young boy with an immune system weakened by chemotherapy to go to school and interact with his fellow classmates. Robots —unlike a tablet or smart phone — are specifically designed to mimic or evoke human abilities, which allows them to facilitate human interaction rather than cheapen it. Is interacting with a person via a telepresence robot the same as interacting with them in person? No, of course not, but for hospital- or home-confined people, it is one step closer.
Telepresence robots currently being used in the classroom sell for around $6000, which removes them as an option for a lot of disabled patients with steep medical bills. It is therefore no surprise that these same robots are being marketed as luxurious products for Apple consumers with more money to spare. But though many robots remain pricey and luxurious, more and more are becoming accessible to low- to middle-class families as manufacturing robotic technology becomes cheaper and cheaper. Thanks to 3D-printing, charity network en-NABLE is making prosthetic hands for children that cost as low as $30 – $50; by comparison, most prosthetics cost thousands (and in some cases, tens of thousands) of dollars.
So I for one will not scorn the increased visibility of telepresence robots — because that signifies that they are becoming more affordable (and therefore more accessible) to the people who need them.