Kentaro Yoshifuji envisions a future platform in which people —to be blunt, those earning the lowest wages possible around the world— deliver minimum wage-type jobs anywhere on earth with the help of robots. You are likely to hear more from him within the year, mainly because the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are around the corner. Which means the Paralympics are as well, and for the occasions Yoshifuji is piloting its “robocafé.” Robotic waiters will be remotely operated by people not stricken with poverty but with ALS.
Controversial or not, the implications for Open EdTech and SDGs are clear and worth paying attention. Yes, manipulating a robot would be another entry-level job, and interface design will only make the job easier to grasp. But even then, a learning layer is needed. Since the work would take place entirely online, it only makes sense that the onboarding takes place online too. It is a clear opportunity for a learning provider to partner up with the companies who would either hire the “teleoperators” or let them offer their services a la crowdsharing business model.
Establishing teleoperation markets and industries would have measurable economic benefits on the local level. Workers would no longer need to relocate to another country, which should lead to higher spending in their own regions. (Share of spending budgets going to imported goods notwithstanding.) If the companies evolve as they have in previous cases of offshoring, specialization and middle management roles would evolve, leading to seniority and knowledge accumulation. Eventually, if governments or large enough actors include teleoperation into their human and economic development initiatives, it would lead to investments in infrastructure that would surely reduce global connectivity gaps. Depending on the type of teleoperation, issues such as latency could be critical enough to justify public investment in 5G technology. The hardware required to operate robots remotely is another issue worth looking into. It has been argued that utility VR devices would be ideal for these types of tasks, for which there are already examples involving industrial training.
Working from home is not without its drawbacks, but other benefits could be gained. Telecommuting is already a weapon in governments, especially cities, looking to tackle pollution, carbon emissions and commute times.
In general, the idea isn’t perfect, and issues such as intellectual property and knowledge accumulation by industrialized countries still deserve debate. Let’s just make sure teleoperation isn’t disregarded just because it doesn’t tackle systemic issues for which the idea isn’t primarily responsible.