Wish I Were There

The Beam telepresence robot lets you be in two places at once.

Photo by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo.
Seth Stevenson via Beam telepresence robot.

Photo by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo

To view the promotional video for the Beam Pro telepresence robot is to glimpse a strange, disquieting future. Observe as a corporate executive (ensconced in the comfort and privacy of her own home) fires up her global fleet of remote robot slaves, logging into each one, seeing what they see and hearing what they hear. She leads a meeting during which she commands flesh-and-blood underlings from within the fortress of a cold, robot shell. She sneaks up deskside on a surprised colleague, using the robot’s near-silent motile capabilities. And—perhaps most chillingly—she engages in a hallway conversation with another robot, screen facing screen, motors whirring. Scary days are just over the horizon, my fellow humans.

Telepresence robots had a coming out moment in March when NSA leaker Edward Snowden used a Beam to appear in robot form on stage at a TED Talk. It was unclear how using the Beam was better than simply projecting Snowden’s face onto a screen at the front of the auditorium. But the novelty intrigued me: I couldn’t help but wonder what life was like from behind the controls of one’s own personal, mechanized avatar.

My borrowed Beam arrived at Slate’s New York office packed in a giant trunk that looked like something out of a magician’s attic. When I unclasped its locks and rolled out the robot, I encountered a big screen mounted atop a pair of long poles that emerged from a motorized, wheeled base. I plugged in the Beam’s charging platform, linked the robot to the office Wi-Fi, and, after a few hiccups and a quick call to tech support, I was operating my electrically powered buddy.

You control the Beam using the arrow keys on your laptop, receiving a constant audio/video feed of the physical environment surrounding the robot. It’s amazingly intuitive, and I had no difficulty maneuvering through the office from my perch on a couch in the waiting area. A front-facing camera and set of microphones on the Beam let you see and hear with the robot’s ears and eyes as it rolls around. A downward-facing camera is there for safety, so you can tell whether your wheels are about to hit any obstructions. The webcam and microphone on your own computer let you broadcast your face onto the robot’s screen and throw your voice over its speakers.

The first thing I noticed was how well the thing generally works. The video feed is clear, and you can zoom in if necessary (like, say, if someone wants to show the robot something small on a piece of paper). The microphones are sensitive, and I could hear clearly as I moved about the room (even picking up the moments when people talked rudely about the robot behind its back).

The Beam moves swiftly and silently—so silently that I could roll right into colleagues’ offices without them realizing I’d entered until I said “hi.” I nudged one friend’s desk chair with my wheels, prompting her to turn around and gasp in surprise when she found herself suddenly staring at my enormous video face hovering over her shoulder.

I did have a couple of connectivity issues. The robot shuddered to a halt in the office kitchen area and, while I could still see and hear, I lost movement control. “Hey,” I shouted to a startled woman who walked past, “can you roll me back out into the hallway?” She kindly obliged, and the robot whirred back to life. In another instance, I lost all contact in the middle of a robot-to-human conversation in my editor’s office. The Beam automatically flashed up a message on its screen asking any nearby human to gently jostle it until it reawakened.

I also found it hard to express nonverbal cues using the robot’s body. When I’m in the office and I stop at someone’s desk to chat, I’m able to indicate when it’s time for the conversation to wrap up so I can walk away. This may involve subtle movements—turning the body slightly, or backing up half a step—that suggest an imminent departure. But these sorts of subtleties are impossible to convey when operating the Beam. Any motion the robot makes is a choice by the user to press a button, and thus cannot be passed off as subconscious body language. The Beam is blunt, and socially inept.

At $16,000, the Beam is also not a toy. It’s a piece of expensive technology that a company or a wealthy individual might choose to invest in. Why, though, would anyone make that choice? As a colleague suggested, you might just as easily stack 16,000 one-dollar bills in a tower and then use them as a pedestal for a cheap, Skype-enabled laptop—accomplishing pretty much the same thing.

But it’s not exactly the same. It’s true that if you were, say, a CEO lounging on his yacht, you could ask an assistant to bring an iPad into the office conference room and prop it upright on the table, and then log on using Apple’s FaceTime or another such program to participate in the meeting—seeing and hearing, and being seen and heard, just as you would with the Beam. But you lack a sense of agency when you become reliant on others in this way. There’s something almost infantilizing about having an assistant place your little video face at the head of a gathering.

Beam Pro Telepresence robot.
Beam Pro Telepresence robot.

Photo courtesy Suitable Technologies

With the Beam, you can choose to attend or skip the meeting on your own, without any notice. You can show up precisely when you wish to—Teutonically early or fashionably late. And, not for nothing, you have a genuine physical presence in the room. You take up space.

That may sound like a silly reason to get a robot, but it makes a difference. When I attended a Slate meeting in robot form—while my meat body sat on a balcony in Brooklyn—people were forced to move around the robot to take their seats. When I spun the robot slightly to its right to observe someone speaking at the far corner of the room, everyone could see where my attention was focused. When I piped up, all eyes turned to my screen, instead of vaguely staring at the speakerphone in the middle of the table as they’d have done if I’d phoned in. (One meeting attendee noted that “often on a conference call, you just forget about the lurkers calling in from home,” but there was no forgetting the Beam. Less positively: When the robot accidentally grazed a co-worker’s butt as I steered it out of the room, I could hear someone off camera refer to the moment as a “possible H.R. violation.”)

The physical autonomy granted by the Beam seems like it could have further, powerful—if slightly discomfiting—benefits for a manager. An employee would never know when you might roll up behind him and find he’s looking at a gossip site or a baseball game on his computer monitor. He’ll never know if you’ll suddenly roll into a meeting or not, without warning, so he’d better be there just in case. It’s a bit Big Brother-ish, but creating uncertainty and tension certainly helps with the fear aspect of Machiavelli’s maxim that it’s better for a ruler to be feared than loved.

And what about the love part? A few people around the office noticed that they were beginning to feel affection for the robot. The words “comical” and “doddering” were used to describe the Beam’s movements as it scooted about, and rotated on its wheels to face different people in discussion circles. “At some point I humanized the robot,” says one colleague, “and began to see it as kind of a silly poor thing that needed help getting around and navigating. It kind of felt like a pet.” Another Slatester found the robot “goofy” in an endearing way, and liked that it was “so vulnerable, like an adorable giraffe learning to walk.” One writer theorized that the Beam’s height—5-foot-2—made it “feel like less of a threat” than if the machine had towered over its domain.

Once, sitting at home very late at night, I decided to log in to my robot and take a tour around the Slate office. I had a brief twinge of fear that I might see someone having drunken sex on a desk, but no, it was a just an empty, dark office. The Beam is equipped with little headlights, so I was able to see where as I was going as I rolled between the silent, barren cubicles. It was incredibly eerie. And somehow, this visit to a place devoid of humans made me more aware of the fact that the robot was granting me a remote, corporeal representation. I could bump its wheels into things and move them around, and no one could stop me. I could wander into the boss’s office and behind his desk if I wanted to, and no one would know. It made me yearn to log into robots in other parts of the world—Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Riyadh—and amble through the streets, roll along riverbanks, browse bustling marketplaces.

I’m not sure I love the vision of a future in which we all just sit at home and let our robots interact with each other. (Sort of like the scene from Real Genius in which a college classroom becomes a tape recorder lecturing to other tape recorders.) But I’ll admit I wish I didn’t have to return the Beam. Or that it was affordable enough that I could buy it on a whim. I’ll miss the ability to feel that I could almost, sort of, be in two places at once. I was strangely comfortable living life from within a machine.