What it gets right about robots: telecommuting, embodied mediation
Recommendation: It’s Scalzi. And robots. Do I need to say more? Stop what you’re doing and read these droll, delightful books now. And you don’t have to read the books in order, but it is more fun that way.
We have seen disabled protagonists in detective fiction before, Ironside and Monk on TV and the best-selling Lincoln Rhyme series in print, but not in science fiction. Award-winning John Scalzi remedies that deficit with his new series, Lock In and Head On. The protagonist has been paralyzed, or locked in, since early childhood and can only function in the larger, physical world through telerobots. Whoa, sounds like an opportunity for a major pity party and a sentimental journey of longing to be normal, sort of Surrogates with less attractive forms of mediated embodiment and even more angst.
Wrong. Lock In and Head On are intellectually interesting police procedurals where the main detective works through mediated embodiment in robot bodies. And, of course, since it’s Scalzi doing the writing, the books are populated with relatable characters that you enjoy spending time with (and wish you could pop back with smart aleck responses as good as theirs) and filled with a sense of humor. Plus, the books are surprisingly accurate on the travails of telecommuting.
The backstory is this. Scalzi creates a near future in which a virus paralyzes 1% of the population. Fortunately, one of the first victims is the First Lady and thus under President Haden, the US government finds itself launching a moon shot program to give Hadens full telepresence. This requires creating a neural interface to robots and improving telecommuting robots. In a few years, telecommuting robots go from the current variations of an iPad on rolling stick (yes, Double Robotics, I’m talking about you) to more humanoid-ish robots. The humanoid-ish robots are more utilitarian and mechanical than the Westworld hosts who have full physical fidelity. They get nicknamed Threeps because of the resemblance to C3PO in Star Wars.
Lock In, the terrific start of the series, is about integrators, the non-Hadens who have a neural interface and thus their biological bodies can serve as temporary hosts for Hadens. It is illegal to use a host for nefarious ends, but you don’t have to be Raymond Chandler to imagine the pulp fiction possibilities. The integrator plot line has an Altered Carbon feel to it, though the protagonist is Chris Shane-- a FBI agent who is a well-adjusted trust fund baby and former media star-- is about as far from Takashi Kovacs as one can get. Plus there’s droll, snappy dialogue and we get to watch Chris’ partner delightfully strong arm everyone in sight, emulating the stacatta blasts and NSFW vocabulary choices of Samuel L. Jackson.
Head On is actually better as it moves away from the slightly implausible integrator science MacGuffin to describing a day-in-the-life of a just-trying-to-do-my-job-Ma’am law enforcement agent who happens to be a Haden. Hadens have come up with a big-money teleoperated sporting event called Hilketa that combines Robot Wars, fantasy video games, and Buzkashi (that Afghan game of kicking around a goat’s head). Hilketa sounds so fun that even I’d pay money to watch and I don’t like sports. When a Hilketa player dies at home during play, is it a) due to an unfortunate medical feedback loop that is a side effect of mediated embodiment or b) a sinister conspiracy involving greed, adultery, kinky robot sex, and cats? It’s not really a spoiler to say the answer is “b.”
The world building is spectacular. Scalzi hasn’t just imagined a technological MacGuffin, he’s imagined the realistic ramifications of such a technology throughout society and the subtle infrastructure changes it would entail. Something as basic as recharging a Threep during the investigation becomes a subplot that creates a frisson of sympathy for the frustrations associated with being disabled and side splitting laughter at the “yeah, that’d be about right” experience.
With the exception of the neural interface, the level of telecommuting is feasible and realizable with current telecommuting robot technology.nThere’s no doubt that telecommuting robots will increase. We’re already seeing the medical market promoting highly specialized doctors working with other doctors and physician assistants through robots. The market is huge for experts to telecommute versus losing days of time to travel. Most heartening, kids are using telepresence robots to attend class. In Texas, I listened to a boy and his mother talk about how the boy not only got to attend school, but everyone paid positive attention to him. Unlike being in class in a wheelchair and no one making eye contact, it was cool to have a robot friend and the kids throughout the school would go out of their way to make sure the boy could see them waving “hi” and talk to him. In another school, the kids wanted to take their classmate’s robot with them during the fire drill. Talk about inclusion! Let’s not forget about the less glamorous regular workforce, as of 2017, roughly 3.7 million employees - 2.8% of the workforce - work from home at least half the time. So telerobots are coming.
But why robots versus just videoconferencing with a pan and tilt monitor? It turns out that are different benefits for the teleoperator “behind” the robot and for the people interacting with the robot “in front." One reason for tele robotics is to immerse the teleoperator in the environment. One of my colleagues who started a tele robotics company two decades ago said that manufacturing consultants couldn’t videoconference effectively and had to travel because so much of what they needed as input was just walking around the shop floor getting a sense of what was going on. Even security cameras weren’t enough because the subliminal input often depended on the angle of view, actual interactions like whether people were looking up and making eye contact with visitors, and so on. The question remained of how much of the worker’s behavior would change with a robot rolling through, but certainly it argued for why a remote person wanted to be fully embedded in the distal environment.
Another reason is that robotic telecommuting can improve the people’s quality of interactions with the robot/teleoperator, providing more of the media richness that is essential in human-human communication. It turns out that people in the distal environment react better and pay more attention to, and are more fully engaged with, a robot that is eye height, can turn to focus on whoever is speaking, move to look closer at what they are pointing at, and chat with them as they walk down the hall. The more the robot can maintain eye contact and can act like a “creature” not a monitor, the more people subconsciously react to it - and the teleoperator - as if it were a real person standing in front of them.
The only thing that isn’t accurate in Lock In and Head On about teleoperation is the lack of expression on the Threeps faces. The ability to change eyebrows, blink, and smile are important to natural communication and with miniaturization of actuators, it would not be that more expensive to include on a Threep.
My recommendation is read these books NOW! Life is too short to miss funny, smart stories. As a bonus for Ancillary Justice fans, see if you can tell if Chris is male or female because Scalzi avoided making an explicit declaration. Playing along, Audible released two versions, one with a male narrator (Wil Wheaton) and the other with a female narrator (Amber Benson). Despite being an avowed feminist, I recommend Wheaton - he narrates most of Scalzi’s other books and captures the wry tone perfectly; he is Aaron to Scalzi’s Moses. Who knew that Wesley Crusher was going to make good one day?
For a video review of 'Lock In' and 'Head On', head over to the official RTSF YouTube channel or simply click below...