Margaret Atwood’s telepresence book-signing robot

Wow: Margaret Atwood has become the first author to sign books in remote locations — via a telepresence robot! Last fall, she hooked up with a Toronto company called Unotchit (which sounds roughly like “you no touch it”) that developed a device that works like this: Unotchit sets up its robot in a remote bookstore. Atwood logs in from home, and using a webcam, talks to people who are attending the far-off book-signing. She chats with ‘em, asks what they want inscribed on their book, and they lay it in front of the Unotchit robot. Atwood writes on a screen, and the robot replicates her pen-strokes precisely, in real-time, on the book.

The idea apparently came to her when she was totally exhausted from touring, and wondered, man, there’s gotta be a better way to do this. As the Toronto Star reports:

“The reactions have been: That’s great. She’s mad. It’s a joke. She’s ruining (book tour) signatures. I can hardly wait to have one,” she said in an interview over coffee at a downtown Toronto restaurant.

There are so many excellent layers here. First of all, this confirms my growing sense that Atwood is among the biggest secret geeks on the planet. After all, she’s basically a sci-fi author masquerading as a writer of “serious” adult nonfiction. Her “what if” novels are so superb — and so manifestly superior to her other books — that I sometimes wish she’d just give up writing about the usual maundering-around-the-kitchen-
moaning-about-your-children/divorce/boring-ass-upper-middle-class-life crap that comprises 99% of all of today’s dinosaur literary fiction, and just throw it down old-skool in sci-fi and fantasy, and crank out a bunch of 4,000-page novels with, y’know, dragons and instellar spacecraft and shit on the covers. I would so pay for that.

Secondarily, the book-signing robot neatly — and possibly even intentionally — parodies the fact that the vast majority of authors are so thoroughly wretched at book-readings, and so achingly wooden in their delivery, that they might as well send robots in their stead. (Atwood’s pretty funny in real life, though, I must admit.)

Either way, when the Atwoodbot comes to New York, I am absolutely showing up to get a book signed!

(Thanks to my sister Christine for this one!)

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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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