Star Trek lite: Can telepresence save the universe?

space, the final frontier

Can the technologies that make up telepresence have a societal impact that could change everything from space exploration to telecommuting?

Seems like a lot of pressure to put on any one particular technology but there are a few experts out there who say advanced telepresence technology could indeed change the way people remotely communicate with work, run factories and investigate distant solar systems.

Telepresence today typically refers to a group of technologies -- video cameras, audio sensors and software -- that can let the user feel like he or she is in the same room as the person they are meeting and conversing with.

What some observers want to see is that basic model expanded so that remote scientists could say manage a team of team of semi-automous robots to fanned out to explore and build outposts on Mars, for example. A similar approach could be taken on the factory floor where a manager, working from home or anther factory can direct a team of smart bots on the manufacturing floor as if he were operating them in person.

Some of these things are done to a very small degree today, said John Merchant, IEEE member and CEO of robotics firm RPU Technology. "What we do now is primitive. We can work here without being there in a much more sophisticated way."

The status of telepresence today is analogous to that of the telephone as it was at the start of the 20th century, he added. Merchant presented his view of the future of telepresence at this week's RoboBusiness Conference & Expo in Boston.

"For a million years our human species experience has been that the only way to work-there is to go-there. That mind set has crippled our space program."

What Merchant would like to see from our space program is NASA restructure its overarching space exploration strategy known as the Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS) to adopt telepresence as the way to achieve space exploration goals without developing manned spacecraft and all of the expense and risk that entails.

Others share this advanced view of the power of telepresence. Just this week in a New York Times op-ed piece entitled "Boldly Going Nowhere," Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute stated: Our desire to walk a landscape that basks in the light of another star, to hear the whistle of an alien planet's wind and feel its sting on our faces, will not - any century soon - be sated by hurling massive, human-filled starships into space. Instead, we will extend our senses light-years beyond Earth with these telepresence proxies and data collectors. That's a far more realistic version of the "Star Trek" future: to explore distant worlds, under alien suns, without leaving the familiar surroundings of our terrestrial home."

Shostak continued: "A plausible solution would be to re-energize NASA's development of nuclear-powered rockets, with the intention of building a craft able to send clusters of micro-bots into deep space at velocities of, say, one-tenth light speed. Depending on financing and our ability to garner international cooperation, these probes could be sent off before the 21st century starts to wane. By the middle of the following century, on-the-scene data from Epsilon Eridani, the nearest known planetary system, could be in our hands."

"These microbots would supply the information that, fed to computers, would allow us to explore alien planets in the same way that we navigate the virtual spaces of video games or wander through online environments like Second Life. High-tech masks and data gloves, sartorial accessories considerably more comfortable than a spacesuit, would permit you to see the landscape, touch objects and even smell the air," Shostak stated.

But it is not only space telepresence could conquer. There is an immediate and urgent need to reduce commuting worldwide because of highway congestion, climate change, and the cost and availability of energy, Merchant said.

There are already a billion cars in the world, many of which are used to commute to work. The recent skyrocketing gas prices showed that there is not enough oil available to fuel all of these cars, the emissions from which are dangerously exacerbating climate change. Working-there by telepresence without going-there would reduce commuting, and thereby reduce emissions and the massive outflow of wealth to the oil-producing nations. It would facilitate and accelerate the conversion to alterative fuels by reducing the demand for fuel, Merchant said

Telepresence for reduced commuting to factories and offices should be undertaken and sponsored by the government to the point of commercial viability, Merchant said.

Developing more sophisticated telepresence systems would create a number of benefits, Merchant said. For example:

Lower costs: A typical worker now works eight hours/day and may spend two hours/day commuting. Telepresence would provide a 25% saving in total worker time in this case. Also worker transportation costs (fuel+car) would be much less with telepresence.

Decrease factory costs. The office or factory could be located in areas where real estate is much less expensive. Also the parking areas can be much smaller.

Lower operating costs: The real estate tax will be lower in these areas. E.g. no tax burden from major highways, schools, etc.

Improve worker mobility: A telepresence worker could change jobs (anywhere in the world) without relocating.

Aside from the R&D money involved in developing such systems there are other challenges, Merchant said. Like The organizational structure of offices and factories would be different and offices and factories would also need to be rethought.

A lot of things would have to be rethought.

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