Tuesday, May 10, 2016



For decades, technology companies have been developing the concept of the ‘domestic robot’ – a little home helper to provide menial service and do the jobs no-one else wants to.

At the same time, most of the countries where development is proceeding regulate to prevent their citizens from engaging the poor of other countries (like India) to provide them with those same services in exchange for subsistence wages.

Does this make sense? To take up the example of India, home to hundreds of millions of poor who could competently provide menial service to the world’s relatively well to do (as the fortunate among them already do in India) and who would be happy to do so for a subsistence wage and ultimate junking back in their country of origin when the upgrade becomes available at a reasonable price.

Is it even fair? To subject these hundreds of millions to a life of limited opportunity while spending billions on developing machines to do what they would be only too willing to do for considerably less.

No doubt there are sound social, political and economic arguments to undermine the case I’ve made above.

Nevertheless, in the tradition of launching projects that seem to go no further than the bottom of the page (if that far), I’m launching another proposal here, aimed at highlighting global inequities in the brief, dim, opaque pre-dawn of the robot era:

Proposal to develop human robots for fun and to highlight global inequity:

Some fun facts to begin with:

     - Median household income in India is USD616 per annum. Median household size between 4.5 and 5, though around 4 in most cities.

     - 30% of the population is 14 years of age or younger. Mobile phone accounts number around 75 per 100 people.

So people are dirt poor, with families most commonly living on less than USD2 per day, and yet despite this, most adults have a mobile phone.

Here’s my idea – through a website, an app, a mobile phone, whatever you like, you can, for a small hourly fee (equivalent perhaps to median daily household income – about USD2), control the activities of an Indian robot through an app on his or her own phone. Learning how to operate one of these robots is an intuitive process.

After that, you can do what you like with the idea. You can send your robot to the park, or ask him or her to dig a hole, or connive with other robot operators to have your robots meet and play games together. Remote flash mobs might erupt. Alternatively, you can have the robots do good that you cannot do yourself from such a distance – help the elderly, teach children, pick up garbage. Obviously I haven’t thought this part through, but why should I? Anything I can come up with will be quickly superseded by the ideas of others: 'AirPerson', 'YoUber': the mind simply contorts, ties itself in knots, as opportunity beckons, unfolds before us.

Is this cynical? Compared to what? Is it degrading? Compared to who’s life? Is it de-humanizing? Only in the same way that billions of dollars’ worth of research and development is humanizing machines. Is it potentially lifting thousands out of poverty. Definitely. Is it highlighting global inequity? Well I hope so. Even highlighting a bit of global injustice too.

So, where to from here? If you’re interested, drop me a line. We can set you up with a personalised micro-pilot program.

Post-script, Day 15

I took this idea (‘bio-robots for fun and education’) out for a bit of a walk and talk. Took it up with a retired Indian army general the other night, expecting that he’d apoplex his beer all over the front of my shirt in response. Since his retirement, the former general has been patron of a charity that feeds around 4000 street children each month, so he seemed like the right person to try it on.

Instead of berating me, he was charmingly encouraging and supportive. He pointed to a couple of obvious potential pitfalls: that robot people could be asked to do things that are illegal or unhealthy, and that mis-pricing the rate for hourly robot access could unleash social problems. The second problem might be easily dealt with using a surge pricing method such as that for which Uber has become infamous. The first problem, yeah that probably requires a bit more thought.

A couple of businessmen I talked to were equally supportive. One raised the concern that, like everything in India, someone will attempt to interject themselves into the process, in effect gathering in robot assignments and then farming them out to others at a reduced price. But the app could easily be written to sidestep that kind of abuse.

All however were captivated by the appeal of the idea and its power, of simultaneously highlighting the grotesque nature of inequity while giving people the opportunity to do something, direct and individual, about it.

1 comment:

  1. Cool adventures and vacation you had there. We have been to both sides too, the Greak and the Turkish side. The north east (Turkish) is the very different part and very enjoyable. As you say on the Greak side the is also many secrets to discover, in particular in the middle. Also Cyprus is a place where you can witness live, how politics act and try to create unchangeable facts, e.g. the Turkish relocating lots of continent Turks onto the island and by that 'diluting' the local Cyprus-Turkish population. Regards from Schaffhausen, Dieter