Thursday, February 21, 2019


I recently read an article about college students confined to their homes by medical issues (e.g., a pregnant woman on enforced bed rest) "attending" classes by means of telepresence robots. Here's a page explaining what these devices are and how they work:

What Telepresence Robots Can Do

Actually, these aren't true robots as I understand the term. They have no autonomy of any kind; they're moved by the user through remote control. The "robot" is a mobile device that allows the operator to see, hear, speak, and be seen in a remote location such as a classroom, hospital (telemedicine), or business meeting. It consists of a "computer, tablet, or smartphone-controlled robot which includes a video-camera, screen, speakers and microphones so that people interacting with the robot can view and hear its operator and the operator can simultaneously view what the robot is 'looking' at and 'hearing'." In other words, judging from the pictures, it's a computer screen rolling around on a mobile platform. Thus the user can relate to people at a distance almost as if he or she were in the room with them.

Telepresence reminds me of "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," by James Tiptree, Jr., except that Tiptree's story portrays a much darker vision. Beautiful androids without functional brains are grown in vitro for the explicit purpose of becoming celebrities, essentially famous for being famous, to encourage the public to buy the products of these media stars' commercial sponsors. Unknown to their fans, these constructs are mindless automata remotely operated by human controllers whose brains are linked to the androids. The girl of the title, born with a condition that makes her physically feeble as well as ugly (by conventional social standards), is one such operator. A young man falls in love with the android, thinking she's a real woman under some kind of mind control, and breaks into the booth occupied by the operator. The encounter doesn't end well for her. It's a grim, desperately sad story.

Fortunately, the telepresence robots now in use have no "uncanny valley" similarity to human beings, much less the capacity to pass for live people. So the exact situation imagined in Tiptree's story—with its dark implications regarding the objectification of women, the performance of gender roles, the valuation of outward appearance over personality and intelligence, the devaluing of people born less than perfect—won't materialize in our society anytime soon. If thoroughly human-seeming androids did become available, though, might some people with severe disabilities voluntarily choose to present themselves to the outside world through such proxies? That possibility could hold both promise and hazards for the individuals involved (not to mention the class divide between those who could afford an android proxy and those who wanted one but couldn't afford it).

In THE SHIP WHO SEARCHED, by Mercedes Lackey (one of the novels spun off from Anne McCaffrey's THE SHIP WHO SANG), the woman who acts as the "brain" of a brain ship, controlling all its functions and experiencing the environment through its sensor array from inside her permanently sealed shell, purchases a lifelike android for the purpose of direct, physical interaction with her "brawn" (her physically "normal" male partner). Unlike the dysfunctional situation in Tiptree's story, in THE SHIP WHO SEARCHED the man is fully aware of his partner's status, celebrates her gifts, and has fallen in love with her as a person despite the impossibility of physical contact. As with most technology, telepresence will doubtless have positive or negative impacts depending on how individuals use and relate to it.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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