Will your next government co-worker be a robot?

System administrators in government may soon have a new type of device to support and troubleshoot: robots.

A study published by MIT says that the United States will be ripe for full “telepresence workers” by 2014. These robots would not be limited to being glorified telecommuting screens on wheels either. The next generation of robots, due out very soon, will be semi-autonomous, will perform some degree of manual tasks, and will be controlled almost perfectly up to 1,800 miles away.

According to the study, it’s not actually the robotic technology itself that was the stumbling block to implementing robots before now. It was the connection speeds.

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Apparently, a robot that performs manual labor or other physical tasks needs to be tethered to its user by at least a 160 megabits/sec connection. As you can imagine, a robot that is manipulating the physical world has to be tightly controlled; otherwise it becomes a safety hazard. And given lag times, the worker acting as the robot’s brain should also not be more than 1,800 miles away. Otherwise the data might be too delayed for the controller to perform tasks accurately.

But with new, fast network speeds, that 1,800-mile range pretty much opens up the entire country to robotic control. A few workers at a government facility in Kansas could manage thousands of robots on both coasts without even getting close to their extreme range. 

The study, which was written by MIT doctoral student Matt Beane, seems to envision a future where low-paid workers in Mexico could control landscaping robots in the United States. I’m not sure that would actually work, given that the current price of robots that can perform manual labor is about a $6,000-per-month rental. And I wouldn’t trust any of them with a big pair of lawn scissors.

But in terms of government jobs, there could be a big role for semi-autonomous robots. The military certainly could use them, and already does for lot of dangerous jobs such as bomb disposal and reconnaissance in high-risk areas.

But what about more domestic uses? Imagine a Department of Motor Vehicles where robots handle most claims. A handful of workers could monitor the entire facility, stepping in to control individual robots as needed to perform a manual task like stamping a document or handing over a new license plate. The workers could be at any location within a state, yet control every robotic DMV worker.

At the high end of the skill scale, a robot could even be used as a surrogate surgeon, with the real doctor a thousand miles away, though I think the new generation of robots are going to be more heavily focused more on the manual-labor type of worker.

The study does get something spot on, I think, and that is the prediction that robots will rapidly start moving into the workforce over the next decade. This could open up a whole new type of network administration skill-set, those of robot controller and robotic network troubleshooter.

Those of you responsible for government networks need to be ready, because the robots are coming. And they will probably need your help.


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Wed, Jul 25, 2012

It's too early to predict how much impact these robotics or other innovations will have on US labor markets and the overall economy. Let's not be too alarmist about it. One thing is certain though: we must continue to adopt new technologies and evolve our culture to accomodate them. If we don't, other countries will, and our global competitiveness will ultimately suffer -- that would have a more profound long term impact on the well-being of US residents than periodically re-training & re-balancing our workforce when there's a technology leap forward.

Wed, Jul 25, 2012 Greg Minnesota

if the robots deliver quality service and liberate people for better jobs/opportuinties - fine. If we are embedding them for short term reasons and ignoring the long term impacts - ie hordes of unemployed humans unable to support themeselves - then the gain in efficiency at the DMV is massively offset by the increased costs in a new housing crash, high unemployment costs and a generally less safe society. Don't better technology to create a dumber future.

Tue, Jul 24, 2012 Victor

I've always felt that the purpose of automation was to free up humans to do more important and more evolutionary work. How many of you draw your drinking water from a well every morning? Or use a "chamber pot"? Probably not many. Sometimes we forget that it's technology that gives us the time, the freedom and the opportunity to be even more human and even better humans. How we use these gifts is up to us.

Tue, Jul 24, 2012 Joey USA

Such fear for new technology, folks! I for one, want to automate any job that is drudgery. If it can be capably done by a robot, then make it so. We don't cut wheat with a scythe any more...do we? We automated that backbreaking task, and we're happier for it.

Tue, Jul 24, 2012

So if the government approves this that means they approve of unemployment poverty and sickness. Wow how to kill an economy and society, as well as a country.

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