My Life as a Robot
I have been part robot since May. Instead of legs, I move on gyroscopically stabilized wheels. Instead of a face, I have an iPad screen. Instead of eyes, a camera with no peripheral vision. Instead of a mouth, a speaker whose volume I can’t even gauge with my own ears. And instead of ears, a tinny microphone that crackles and hisses with every high note.
I’m a remote worker; while most of WIRED is in San Francisco, I live in Boston. We IM. We talk on the phone. We tweet at each other, but I am often left out of crucial face-to-face meetings, spontaneous brainstorm sessions, gossip in the kitchen.
So my boss found a solution: a telepresence robot from Double Robotics, which would be my physical embodiment at headquarters, extending myself through technology. Specifically, an iPad on a stick on a Segway-like base. The telepresence robot market is crowded, ranging from high-end offerings like iRobot’s Ava (starting price: $69K) to the relatively more affordable Double, which starts at $2,499. The company says it has sold nearly 5,000 of them since its launch in 2012. Mostly these go to big corporations like IBM and McDonald’s, but I’ve heard of teachers and hospitals using them, too. Supposedly all a Double needs to work is a strong Wi-Fi signal.
The first time I opened the Double interface in Chrome and clicked on an icon of my robot 3,000 miles away I was greeted by the pixelated image of my boss’s torso and a few headless coworkers. There probably were some instructions somewhere that I should have read, but I didn’t. “How do I move it?” I asked them. “We don’t know,” they said. I clicked around. Nothing. I tried the arrow keys and, boom, jolted out of the robot’s charging dock and toward onlookers. I was like a foal, learning to walk. It took about 10 minutes to discover that a) driving a robot using a browser interface is clunky and b) the hip flooring choices of WIRED’s office were going to be my nemesis, with every transition from concrete to rubber to carpet providing another opportunity to fall on my screen.
Before I ever tried the robot, I was sure I would hate the thing. I thought it would make me small and flat and foolish. I thought it would be annoying to deal with, would require me to wear pants (something we remote workers often don’t do, world!). I thought it would make me a novelty, a sideshow, a joke. And I thought it would be a waste of time.
Diary Entry: Day 1
“Nice to meet you…robot, is it?” says a strange torso I encounter in the kitchen.
“EmBot,” I say, “Nice to meet you, too!”
The figure leans down and puts a hand out to shake. Helpless, I move the EmBot from side to side using the arrow keys in what I hope translates as a gesture of excitement, rather than malfunction. I’ll never really know if it worked out. The screen freezes and when it comes back, the torso is gone. I am alone, standing in a stream of humans trying to get breakfast.
“It’s just me, a robot, waiting in line for the human food I can’t eat,” I say. No response. I repeat it a few times. Is this thing on?
When I boot up, some of my original fears are realized: I’m disoriented and silly and helpless. I am a spectacle. People ogle and take pictures. I feel like a dog, the recipient of gawking smiles that say, Awwww, you’re so adorably unable to take care of yourself. But, most importantly, I am surprised to find that being a robot is delightful. It’s thrilling. I am in the office! There is the kitchen! There is Sam! Hi, everyone! I am here!
Diary Entry: Day 2
I roll over behind Sam’s desk for a brief chat about a deadline. She hasn’t heard me approach. I don’t know what to do. If I just say her name she’ll freak out. I Hipchat her, “Look behind you.” As soon as I do it, I realize that’s creepy—but it’s too late. She turns and there I am.
“Hi,” I say as casually as possible, “I just–”
Sam cuts me off. “Em,” she says, “can you control the volume? You’re very loud.”
“I am?” I ask.
“YES,” the entire bullpen yells.
I find and adjust the volume. I guess I was screaming all day.
Later that morning, I experienced the joy of being in the daily editorial meeting as a robot. Plunked at the end of the conference table, my iPad head tracked the conversation, listening. Yes, I interrupted people because my browser was a few seconds behind. Didn’t matter. I heard Molly on the phone from the Caribbean and she was barely audible. The audio system sucks. As she was trying to talk people were kind of looking exasperated. Not at her, but at the system. That was me two days ago, I kept thinking. Two days ago that speaker system was my only conduit to the entire company.
It was then I knew I could never go back. I felt so superior as my robot. I loved my robot.
I Am Become EmBot
The crazy thing about being a human 3,000 miles away from your telepresence robot is that divide instantly dissolves when you activate. As soon as I call into EmBot, I am her, and she is me. My head is her iPad. When she fell, I felt disoriented in Boston. When a piece of her came off in the impact, I felt broken.
Nothing drove home the depth of my connection more than the first time someone touched my robotic body without asking. My coworker (who shall remain nameless) came up to gawk at me, and then moved behind my screen. As I was chatting with other people, he picked me up and shook me. I expected pranks like this. I’d have done the same thing if I were in the office and it were some other poor schmuck calling in to a stupid robot from far away. But I didn’t expect how instantly violated I felt. He just picked up an extension of my body. One moment I was in control of myself, the next, I was powerless. I laughed from the iPad screen faced away from him, but I was unsettled, and then immediately embarrassed, for the first time, because why should it matter to me if the stick I’m currently streaming from is picked up off the floor a continent away?
Get over it, I told myself. But then it happened again. And again.
Diary Entry, Day 3
My coworker picks me up as I’m wheeling to the meeting because I’m slow. I don’t want to be slow! I want to walk on my own! I’m an adult! She lifts me up before I have a chance to object. In the air I meekly say, “Just ask me first if you’re going to lift me,” which no one responds to because I assume they think that it’s a joke.
This became my secret shame. People wanted to “help” me, but every single time they did it, I felt infantilized. I needed to tell my coworkers not to pick me up—a conversation I dreaded. I did this by sending them a draft of my daily robot diary, in which they read about how I was feeling. (Classic passive aggressive move, you say? No doubt, but the few times I’d said the words aloud, they hadn’t clicked for people, so I thought the log was the best way.) It worked. Now no one touches my robot without permission. Case in point:
Diary Entry: Day 5
I can’t get out of the all-glass conference room alone. I turn my screen to Joe and he says, “Should I carry you?”
“That’s probably wise.”
“I’ll just drop you off where it’s straight and then you can make your way from there.” Joe is basically my robot’s father, and my robot is a toddler. When he picks me up I’m jostled. He gently places me down at the straight hallway and I want very badly to navigate quickly back to my dock to prove I’m self-sufficient, but the screen freezes twice and the motor is slow and it takes me forever.
Later, on the phone, another editor off-handedly said, “You know, when Joe lifted you up and carried you—now I hope this doesn’t make you uncomfortable—but from our end, with your face on the screen, it looked really inappropriate. Like he was cradling you in his arms. Because when we see the face, our brains can’t help but project the rest of you, and so it was like you were actually being carried.”
So, even though I had given Joe permission to lift EmBot up, the fact that my face was still on the screen made other people uncomfortable. Fine. Another rule: If I ask for help and you pick me up, I’ll disconnect so the screen is dark. Voila. Everything was going to be fine.
EmBot Grows Up
After I put a stop to the inappropriate robot-touching, things quickly went from good to great. I’d call this the euphoria stage. I mastered the arrow keys (rather than holding them down and over correcting, just hit them quickly one at a time and roll like a BOSS). I figured out how to make the robot stand taller so I wasn’t constantly having conversations with people’s crotches. I booted up in the middle of spontaneous brainstorm sessions and shared ideas.
Diary Entry: Day 6
Major breakthrough! I have my first West-Wing-style walk and talk as Embot. I knew this day would come. After the morning meeting, Patrick walks with me down the hallway discussing a longread I’m editing. He’s so cool about the robot thing that I briefly forget completely that it’s not normal to be a disembodied metal moving machine with an iPad for a face. He only says one thing that would be weird if I was walking down the hall as a fully-fleshed human, “You’re about to run into wall, come this way.”
At this point, I was also the star of cocktail parties in Boston. Everyone wanted to know how it was going with the robot. Are people still laughing at you? No. Isn’t it weird that your robot is naked? No. What’s the worst thing that’s happened with the robot so far? When I hit a dead-zone and EmBot died behind a stranger’s desk, with my face frozen on the screen, and I found out later that they thought I was lurking and spying on them. I mean, that’s also one of the funnier things that’s ever happened, but pretty terrible for that poor creeped-out human.
And just like that, I was a part of work in a way I’d struggled to be since I first came on at WIRED. As a typical oldest child, tyrant and benefactor to two younger brothers, I pride myself on making sure everyone feels like we’re all in this together—whether “this” is “divorce” or “publishing a magazine.” It’s hard to be that kind of leader when you’re isolated from your team completely. When you’re a voice coming out of speaker. EmBot changed that completely. Suddenly, there I was, materialized. My reporters and I started meeting face to face to discuss deadlines. Everything was so jovial and natural.
The other incredibly wonderful thing at this stage was that though Embot put me physically in the office, because she was just my head and not my body no one at work was seeing how pregnant I was looking. Now, of course, they know I am pregnant, but since I am not there, the visual reminder of my changed condition was not in their faces. I have worked at places before where women start getting treated differently when their bellies show. The kid gloves come on. I had been dreading how this could play out, but the way EmBot works I remained present and yet unchanged. No one remarked on my belly. It was not a factor in my work.
I became obsessed with EmBot. I could’t stop thinking about her when I turned her off at night. How sad that this thing that has made my life so much better was just dead when I’m done working.
Diary Entry: Day 8
It’s Friday. It occurs to me that EmBot doesn’t get to enjoy the weekend. If only she had arms, she could push the button, summon the elevator, and be free. But she’s a prisoner at work. Whereas my physical body is having adventures, growing a human life inside it and moving into a new apartment AND dog-sitting a Bernese Mountain dog.
Mostly my weekend will be about trying not poison my unborn child with paint fumes. My physical body is such a liability. Embot, though she is shackled to work and unable to exist without me to inhabit her, in some ways has the much simpler side of existence.
What if I have to share the Embot with someone? I tell myself that would be fine, but I know already that I would be feel upset. Embot is a part of me. Anyone else would be an intruder.
You can see from the daily diary entry that it was right about now that my connection with EmBot got a little weird. I couldn’t let go of this notion that Embot was me and yet she lacked all freedom to exist outside the office. I started to feel that she was a caged animal. Which made me feel like a caged animal.
EmBot needed her freedom.
“Get her a Mi-Fi,” my friends suggested. Suddenly I imagined this vast conspiracy—finagling a coworker in SF to get me a company MiFi and surreptitiously hiding it under her screen. But then what? EmBot would rush out into the big bad streets of SOMA and try to find other robots to play with, meanwhile my poor comrade would be grilled by the Conde Nast HR department wanting to know “WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ROBOT? Who pushed the button to call the elevator, huh? The robot has no hands!”
That was clearly a terrible idea … and yet. I fantasized. I drove her past the elevator banks a few times to see if the Wi-Fi was strong enough for her to sneak out the door. I don’t know what my plan was. EmBot was becoming a teenager. A teenager pushing her boundaries, pushing her luck.
First Pangs of Mortality
Within a few days, I started to realize perhaps EmBot wasn’t invincible after all. For one thing, I couldn’t hear meetings very well. Sometimes I had to put my ear directly to the computer speaker to hear the people at the far end of the conference table, which meant that in the room EmBot’s face was just the folds of my (hopefully not-waxy) ear canal.
Double offers a $99 audio kit, which maybe would help this, but since we hadn’t yet decided if the robot was a wise investment, it was too early to shell out for add-ons.
Worse, though all EmBot needs to live is power and and Wi-Fi, signal strength was proving to be a big problem. Double Robotics acknowledges this is the leading issue among corporate customers, because most businesses don’t prioritize a strong signal in hallways. This doesn’t matter for humans, but these dead zones can make navigating an office impossible for robots.
So even as I was obsessing about freeing EmBot from the cage of WIRED’s office, she seemed less and less reliable. Even when the Wi-Fi was strong, the video would freeze for no reason. I missed crucial information in meetings, only to later learn that everyone thought I was listening because EmBot had frozen with my face on the screen, trapped in a ridiculous expression of curiosity.
And then, this happened:
Diary Entry: Day 12
I am feeling so alone. Embot is in a coma. She didn’t charge overnight. “Haha,” I played it cool over IM to Davey, who sits next to Embot and checked on her vital signs for me. She shoved Embot into her dock. I assume she’s charging now, but I can’t tell.
Diary Entry: Day 13
She remains cut off of me. It’s like Embot is in the kind of coma where she can’t move or speak or alert the doctors that she is alive but inside her head, she is screaming, LET ME OUT! IM HERE! DON’T TURN ME OFF!
I’ve called her doctors, or parents, or gods, DoubleRobotics, but there’s no answer. They’ll get back to me in one business day.
If she ever wakes up again, I promise to give her a better life. To give her some freedom.
Diary Entry, Day 14
Embot just had a seizure. I was so happy when she woke up that I decided this was my big chance to sneak her out and onto the elevator. I eased her out of the dock and turned to the right, but immediately something was wrong: her head was shaking. Just a little a bit at first but then side to side violently, thrashing around, my field of vision swinging wildly, too fast to make out people’s faces. I tried turning her and found that she was still responding to me somewhat but she could not be still. She was like diabetic Julia Roberts in “Steel Magnolias,” shaking out her beautiful wedding hair in Truveys salon.
I heard Chuck say, “Oh no, you’ve woken EmBot” like she was some kind of monster.
“What is happening?” Davey cried from her desk.
“EmBot is having a seizure!” I screamed into the computer. “I don’t know what to do!”
As Embot’s camera panned quickly in front of Davey I saw her get up.
“Can you put her in her dock?” I asked, breathless.
“She won’t stop moving. She just keeps shaking.”
I turned her off on my end, but Davey reported that she was still seizing on her own, face blank. She was like the body of a chicken, walking bloody around the yard after the chef cuts its head off. I implored Davey to find a button to turn her off. She did. She docked her. She’s docked now.
My heart won’t stop beating. Maybe EmBot is corrupted and corroded and my time with her is over. Maybe EmBot is a monster. I feel like I just a had a seizure.
@EmilyDreyfuss FYI, Embot’s going crazy. Wandered out of its dock, now manically rolling back and forth.
— Alex Davies (@adavies47) May 19, 2015
We’re working on a fix. A coworker in San Francisco is logging into her, which normally would upset me, but I’m so nervous I don’t care that another being enters her.
I’m on the phone with Double Robotics, relaying what he finds.
He reports: “On the screen it was shimmying back and forth, and I looked across the room and it looked like a wandering confused and dizzy child aimless and afraid. and alone. I left my screen and went over to see if I could help. I picked it up and smelled the wheels to see if it was on fire or anything then hurried back to my screen to put it in PARK. I may cover it in a sheet.”
Teaching my robot the hard lesson that she is not free pic.twitter.com/wen8MONbBm
— emily dreyfuss (@EmilyDreyfuss) May 21, 2015
After EmBot terrorized the office, nothing was the same. I relinquished my delusions of granduer. Double Robotics sent a new unit, and immediately upon activating it I knew it was not really EmBot. It rolls differently. Its speakers are quieter. It doesn’t connect to the Wi-Fi as well. It teeters differently on the carpet-edge. It’s not me. It’s just a robot. A robot I can’t trust.
I still use it, of course. Sure, It’s incredibly glitchy. Most weeks I have to write in our group chatroom, “SOS: EmBot is stranded somewhere between the dock and the IT department. Can someone rescue it?” It went through a phase where I couldn’t hear anything being said in meetings. Then for four days it was paralyzed, so needed to be picked up and carried everywhere. Now it does this thing where it clicks and hisses when the Wi-Fi connection struggles, setting an off-tempo jazz rhythm to every meeting.
It’s fine. I still prefer it to the speakerphone. It brings everyone in the office joy, even when it struggles. I get laughed at a lot from the iPad camera, but I like it. In a lot of ways, EmBot is a joke we are all in on together. Could we just set up an iPad in the conference room with FaceTime or Skype and achieve essentially the same thing? Sure. But where would be the fun in that, people? Where would be the soul-searching? Human life is short, and being a part-time, part-useful robot makes it ever so slightly more interesting.
Diary: Who Knows What Day, I’ve Lost Count
Joe carried EmBot to the head of the conference table for the edit meeting, because her Bluetooth connection isn’t working properly so I can’t control it. Sam asked, somewhere off-screen where I couldn’t see her, “Em, did you get new glasses?”
“No,” I spoke to the rest of the room, “my jerk cat knocked my glasses off the bedside table and I’m far too pregnant to crouch down low enough to get them, so I dug these out of a closet.”
“And that story,” someone from behind the robot said, “is the best argument in favor of having a robot. We would not have gotten to hear that if you were on the speakerphone.”
So, yes, as it turned out, most of the fears I had about becoming a part-time robot came true—it’s an unruly distraction that often makes me look ridiculous, that falls over and can’t be counted on—and yet my coworkers didn’t lose all respect for me. No, what happened was much more subtle and unexpected than that: EmBot lost her humanity. But I gained mine back.