05 Sept. 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project

How Big Is Your Planet? (Part 2)

We left the last blogitem with the question:  "What if the company had "waldos," the remote manipulators (virtually) invented by Heinlein, with the worker connected to them remotely by the internet or other system?  If they were sufficiently precise and the communication were fast enough, could he not do his job from home?" 

Yes, he could.  A fastball going at 90 miles an hour is traveling at 132 feet per second, or about a baseball bat diameter in two milliseconds.  The difference between a home run and a foul ball could be a millisecond or less!  That corresponds to the speed-of-light lag (two way) of about 90 miles. With realistic commuting distances of 4 to 40 miles, it would seem that even a star slugger could phone it in!  Clearly the speed of light is not an impediment to routine commuting, assuming network latency could be brought under control 

Now let's consider the extreme telecommuter, a surgeon at home operating in a remote hospital facility in some benighted nation where few skilled surgeons would be willing to live.  An irreducible speed-of-light lag of, say, 100 milliseconds, is probably an eternity when one is wielding a scalpel.  Although this cannot even theoretically be overcome, there are probably computer algorithms that can anticipate future movements from Newtonian mechanics and, pushing the technology a bit, the surgeon's brain waves and muscular tension.  Perhaps the lag could be apparently reduced by a significant amount.  In that case, even the most demanding tasks could be performed half-way around the planet from the performer, assuming the proper hardware at both ends.  As an extreme example, NASA personnel have trained, using video delay devices, to operate a lunar rover from earth, with a delay of seconds between a steering or braking command and reaction by the vehicle.

From my (very) brief analysis, it would seem that telecommuting is practical for a much larger group than practices it now.  It would be an environmental boon, and an economic one in certain respects.  Imagine a free-lance assembly line worker!  Once he has the manipulative system in his house, he can work for several employers, or even take his lunch break at a different plant 50 miles away if he's keen on making some extra bucks.  Of course, this isn't the free-for-all, auction-of-labor it might seem since he would require very specific training for each plant where he "worked." 

There are any number of science fiction books that postulate "teleportation" and have their characters living anywhere they like, such as on otherwise-inaccessible plateaus in the high desert.  Telecommuting enabled by sophisticated manipulators at both ends would seem to render this scenario at least technically possible, although without the teleportation aspect there won't be opportunities for bored housewives to dally with the pool boy.  In fact, social ramifications must be carefully considered.  What's the point of having a pristine atmosphere if everyone breathing it is miserable?

If this were an academic exercise, it would conclude with a stuffy summary:

Thus, it can be seen that, at least for planets the size of the earth, appropriate investment in telepresence infrastructure can substantially reduce the need for pollution-generating travel on a daily or even less frequent basis.  It would also create new economic opportunities for those otherwise constrained to a life circumscribed by a physical area with few employment opportunities.

But it's not academic, it's me:

Hey, evil airline scum!  Take that!

A Couple of Asides:

The first:  Notwithstanding the analysis above, I personally believe that the first half of my dichotomy is more appropriate:  "Hey, Jack - this is America and I can do what I want."  All of this energy saving stuff is critical right now because we haven't been smart enough to figure out how to expend energy without potentially dire effects on the economy and on the planet.  Eventually we will.

The second:  Andy Tobias, in response to my assertion that people in cars all wish they were somewhere else:

Perhaps. Though for some people, I think there's no place they’d sometimes rather be than in their cars between work and home, listening to the CD of a KISS tribute band (or Jersey Boys), away from the capricious boss, the insane coworkers, the angry customers, the screaming children, and the nagging spouse – although I would not know about any of that because I work alone, my partner never nags, and our dozen nieces and nephews are an unalloyed joy.

To which I responded, only partly in jest "I can't disagree. But you could live at home, work at home, and spend a half-hour in your CarCoon(TM) without driving from one to the other."  Of course I meant "CarCoon" in the sense of "Cocoon," and the notion makes good sense.  If you spend all your time at home, then having a space to which to retreat for the reasons Andy suggests would be a boon and probably save lives.  It turns out that Carcoon® is taken for an "automobile storage system."  I just hate it when people steal my ideas even before I think of them.  Driving can be enjoyable, especially if all the other drivers are at home in their CarCoons!

Follow-Up 28 Sept. 2006

There was a nice article in the Wall Street Journal, today, on the front page of the Marketplace Section.  Entitled "Better Virtual Meetings," it discussed in part how improved technology and greater bandwidth allowed companies to forgo meetings.  One tiny quote:  "The managers said they avoided 45 trans-Pacific trips."

Did I mention "Hey, evil airline scum!  Take that!"?

© 2006
Richard Factor