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News Link • Robots and Artificial Intelligence

Does a Tele-Robot Operator Need a Visa and W-2?

• Jessica Leber via

As robotics software and hardware is commercialized, companies will face some interesting new condundrums, which may give them pause before adopting technologies ranging from workplace telepresence robots and robotic surgical tools, to driverless cars and commercial drones.

But make no mistake, it will be the lawyers just as often as the technologists guiding purchasing decisions, and a hundred legal experts gathered at a conference at Stanford’s Law School yesterday to mull over wide-ranging legal questions posed by the robots marching over the commercial horizon. 

Consider an experiment conducted at the Silicon Valley robot incubator Willow Garage. Employees there hated doing the dishes, so they hired Internet workers through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system. How could an Internet worker do the dishes? First a worker took some online training, and if he passed different levels of tests driving the robot, he was given the ability to operate a PR2, Willow Garage’s $285,000-and-up robot that is dexterous enough to (slowly) fold laundry, set a table, and yes, wash dishes.

It might be a clever solution for chore-averse robotics researchers, but the situation is a walking HR nightmare, and has larger economic implications concerning service workers who can telecommute. As the Willow Garage experiment shows, remote workers won’t just participate in intellectual collaboration or online tasks. They could one day be doing actual labor, mediated through semi-autonomous robots. And so lawyers, ever practical, want to know: In what states will these employees pay their taxes? And what happens if this contract worker sexually harasses an employee? And, how  does one make sure companies are protecting their trade secrets and employees’ privacy when telepresence machines enter the office?

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