Telepresence mexican labor

You know how service-sector work is vanishing offshores — with call centers in India or Indonesia answering the line for companies here in the U.S.? When you call or email Amazon asking for help, odds are you’re not talking to someone in Iowa or Washington. Two years ago they relocated a chunk of their help services to labor in New Delhi, at one-tenth the cost of American labor.

But what if we extended this idea to manual labor — by having remote workers operate robots on American soil? That’s the so-crazy-it’s-probably-going-to-happen idea behind Cybracero, this new company run by a guy named Roger Buck. He quite adroitly realized that Amazon’s far-flung email answerers are, in essence, telepresence workers: They do work offshore that effectively “happens” here — insofar as the customer is receiving the assistance in America.

So Cyberacero’s trying to do this in the physical world. Their goal: To create an army of telepresence robots controlled remotely by dirt-cheap workers in foreign lands. A super-cheap Mexican or Indonesian worker would sit down at a computer, take control of a robot in California, and guide it around to pick fruit.

In a strictly capitalist sense, it could work. For years, American fruit-growers have tried to highly automate their fruit-picking operations. But they’ve failed. Robots aren’t good enough. You can’t yet get robots to do sophisticated tasks — like visual recognition, as in identifying randomly located, oddly shaped pieces of fruit hanging in 3D on trees. That’s why farmers are still relying on often-illegal Mexican workers to pick it.

But who says the Mexican workers actually have to physically be on American soil? Only the robots need to be here. In essence, it’s a paradigm like the one I outlined in last month’s Wired, where a human becomes a mere chip in a robotic machine. In this case, companies would be using inexpensive foreign workers to provide a uniquely human ability — shape recognition and terrain management — to robots here in the U.S.

But still, this idea is just seething with potential for nightmarish abuse of labor. One of the problems with offloading work onto foreign soil is that workers there can’t unionize, have horrifically bad health care, and virtually no workplace health and safety standards. I can only imagine the gruesome workplaces that would emerge in the Phillippines from telepresence. I suppose it could provide better jobs than currently exist in sweatshops — you could argue that a foreign worker might get paid better for this telepresence stuff, or that it would allow them to work in a more highly scrutinized situation, etc. But you know, judging by how the marketplace has been treating the lowest workers in the planet of late, I’m betting nope: It’d just be an even grimmer labor situation than currently exists. I gather this Cyberacero dude is suggesting this because he honestly hopes it could make things better for far-off workers, but global capitalism has a way of doing innovatively nasty shit with even the best of ideas.

Right now, Cyberacero doesn’t even have prototypes up and running, so it’s still just an idea. But I’ll bet someone does this, or something like it, within five to ten years.

And don’t even get me started on the Cartesian mind/body split stuff going on here. Yikes. Multi-million-dollar robots robots safely on American soil, being operated by the brains of 30-cent-an-hour workers in Chiapas: It’s almost some Philip K. Dick parody of north-south relations.

Bonus: Check out the way-nutsoid promotional video for the company. It’s all faked, of course — but when the Mexican worker logs on to do his telepresence work, he uses a Commodore 64 and an Atari 2600 joystick to control the robot. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a Joey Skaggs media prank.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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