By Christopher Mims 

On the ground floor of a towering office building overlooking Tokyo Bay, in a space intended to resemble the interior of a moon base, a convenience store is tended by a humanoid robot.

This robot isn't out front, wowing customers. No, it is in the back, doing the unglamorous job of keeping shelves stocked. It has broad shoulders, wide eyes, a boomerang-shaped head and strange hands, capable of grabbing objects with both suction and a trio of opposable thumbs.

But the machine isn't acting on a set of preprogrammed instructions. Like a marionette on invisible, miles-long strings, the robot at the Lawson convenience store is controlled remotely, by a person elsewhere in the city wearing a virtual-reality headset.

Built by Tokyo-based Telexistence, a three-year-old startup, this system is the culmination of nearly 40 years of research, and is the world's first commercial realization of an audacious goal: to enable a person to do any job on Earth from anywhere else.

Just as Slack, Zoom and countless other tools have made it possible for the world's white-collar workers to work from home during the pandemic, a second wave of remote-work technology is coming. In many industries, it is already here. This technology -- known as telepresence -- goes well beyond mere communications and pixel-pushing.

A broad term, telepresence includes any technology that allows a person to interact with a different place as if they are there -- whether that means controlling robots or drones remotely, or holding virtual meetings with workers in the field. The result is that a host of jobs, including storekeeper and field engineer, that seemed out of reach of remote work are likely to be firmly in the remote-work orbit within the next 10 years.

A lone robot

Today, there is only one Telexistence robot outside the company's laboratories, says Yuichiro Hikosaka, a board member who helped launch the company. Solving Japan's chronic labor shortage was a driving force, but Telexistence's goals are much bigger than keeping the corner konbini stocked with rice balls and cold drinks. "We want to be a platform on which people will be released from any restriction of distance and time, " Mr. Hikosaka says.

Telexistence's first commercial robot, the Model T, is a far cry from fully realizing that dream. One challenge for teleoperated robots is economic: The combination of the system and a remote worker must be cheaper than an equivalent physically present human. As a result, while the Model T might look sleek, Telexistence had to build it from relatively inexpensive parts. The Model T can lift only 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) with each of its arms.

And while it is piloted by a human, it is still not as dexterous or as fast as one. Where an experienced human stocker might be able to get a bottle onto a shelf in a second, a human-guided Model T might take eight or nine seconds, says Mr. Hikosaka.

Eventually, making a robot like the Model T both fast and affordable will require that some of its tasks be at least partly automated, he adds. Telexistence is betting that by starting with a system that is entirely puppeted by humans, it can gather enough training data to eventually teach an artificial intelligence to take over at least some of the robot's tasks. It is the modern-day equivalent of training your replacement -- only your replacement is a cloud-based AI.

Telexistence's robot represents a type of telepresence called telerobotics. And while it is still in the research-and-development phase, there are already many real-world examples, including Air Force drones, doctors using robots to operate remotely, and startups that use humans to remotely control delivery and security robots.

Experts at a distance

Another form of telepresence, which we might call remote expertise, allows front-line workers in jobs as varied as data-center maintenance, pharmaceutical production and petroleum engineering to use smart glasses to share what they are seeing with an expert sitting at a desk somewhere far away. The expert, in turn, can speak to them and send images helping them to handle whatever problems they face. In a way, remote expertise is like screen-sharing the real world.

Robotic Skies, a drone-maintenance company, overnights Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2 headsets to aircraft mechanics at any of the more than 200 repair stations in its network. Donning the headsets, those mechanics stream what they are seeing to a remote expert and receive instruction on how to accomplish a repair.

That is as good as having an expert over a mechanic's shoulder, says Brad Hayden, chief executive of Robotic Skies. It has also been essential during the pandemic. Before Covid-19 hit, his technicians would frequently travel to where they were needed, but now they do their work remotely, sitting at desks, connecting to headsets from their PCs. And while the shift to this way of working was accelerated by the pandemic, it is one that he plans to continue in the future, regardless of the progress of the disease.

"We've been able to continue working and implement technology that will allow us to scale that much faster in this global market as [drone repair] starts to ramp up," Mr. Hayden says.

Brian Ballard, chief executive of remote-expertise company Upskill, says, "If your job is to train people, but you spend half your time on a plane, you're really only doing your job half the time." Based in Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C., Upskill sells systems built around smart glasses from the likes of Vuzix and Alphabet Inc.'s Google to customers including Boeing and Accenture.

The pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions mean customer use is exploding, says Mr. Ballard. One of his customers, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, went from an average of 15 uses a month of smart-glasses-powered remote expertise to over 600 a month, as technicians on the production line used it to reach remote experts. A second pharmaceutical company went from 1,100 calls a month before the pandemic to more than three times as many after lockdowns commenced.

Seeds of tomorrow

But telepresence doesn't have to be as complex as the Model T or Google Glasses to affect an industry. Sometimes, even relatively simple technology -- such as drones -- can be used to extend somebody's reach to a distant place.

For example, Dendra Systems, based in Oxford, England, uses drones to both evaluate degraded wild ecosystems and restore them, shooting seeds into the ground from the air.

Traditionally, planting seeds is done by hand, since there are many locations in Earth's wild places that are impassable for tractors. A person can seed about half a hectare of land per hour, says Dendra co-founder and CEO Susan Graham. Put that same person behind the controls of a drone modified to seed from the air, however, and they can cover 10 times as much land per hour, she says.

Systems that allow for remote control but still require a human to be present for some functions point to what will be, for the foreseeable future, the reality of telepresence: Even if it manages to make more jobs remote and outsourceable, humans will still have to be present for some roles.

In the case of a store like the one run by Lawson and Telexistence in Tokyo, Amazon Go-style cashierless checkout can eliminate about 30% of the labor required to run it, and a robot like the Model T that can stock shelves can allow for the outsourcing of another 30%, says Mr. Hikosaka. That still leaves room for some employment in even the most automated stores, and creates a demand for new kinds of roles, like robot designers, manufacturers and technicians.

There is a potential downside to transforming ever more jobs into remote ones, though, especially jobs that already require relatively little skill and training, as in some parts of the service industry. A service job that can be done remotely is, after all, one that can be outsourced to anyplace there is a sufficiently fast internet connection. Two out of every three American workers are currently employed in the service sector. What happens to them if and when their job can be outsourced to a virtual-reality-headset-equipped, telepresent equivalent of a call center, in a country where wages are significantly lower?

While telepresence could spell more pain for rich countries' blue-collar workers in the short term, its effects on white-collar workers might be the opposite, continuing the trend of making their labor and expertise that much more valuable. Overall, as a rule economies suck up all the increases in productivity they can get, and the result is an ever more complicated technological civilization with more diverse and specialized jobs for a wider array of people.

In any event, it seems likely that more jobs than ever -- including those historically "physical" jobs that were deemed essential during the pandemic -- will be done by someone sitting in an ergonomic chair, their face obscured by a widescreen monitor or VR headset.

Mr. Mims writes The Wall Street Journal's Keywords column. He can be reached at christopher.mims@wsj.com.

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 22, 2020 09:18 ET (13:18 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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