Book a night at LAX's Residence Inn and you may be fortunate enough to meet an employee named Wally. His gig is relatively pedestrian—bring you room service, navigate around the hotel's clientele in the lobby and halls—but Wally's life is far more difficult than it seems. If you put a tray out in front of your door, for instance, he can't get to you. If a cart is blocking the hall, he can't push it out of the way. But fortunately for Wally, whenever he gets into a spot of trouble, he can call out for help.
See, Wally is a robot—specifically, a Relay robot from a company called Savioke. And when the machine finds itself in a particularly tricky situation, it relies on human agents in a call center way across the country in Pennsylvania to bail it out. When Wally makes the distress call, a real live human answers, takes control of the robot, and guides it to safety.
Wally's job may seem inconsequential, but it signals just how close we are to the robot revolution. The machines are finally sophisticated enough to escape the lab and the factory, where they've long lived, and venture into our everyday lives. But for all their advances, robots still struggle with the human world. They get stuck. They get confused. They get assaulted. Which is giving rise to a fascinating new kind of job that only a human can do: robot babysitter.
The first companies to unleash robots into service sectors have been quietly opening call centers stocked with humans who monitor the machines and help them get out of jams. "It's something that's just starting to emerge, and it's not just robots," says David Poole, CEO and co-founder of Symphony Ventures, which consults companies on automation. "I think there is going to be a huge industry, probably mostly offshore, in the monitoring of devices in general, whether they're health devices that individuals wear or monitoring pacemakers or whatever it might be." Self-driving cars, too. Nissan in particular has admitted that getting a car to drive itself is hard as hell, so it wants humans in the loop.
Which might sound, well, a bit dystopian: vast rooms packed with humans devoted exclusively to tending to the whims of robots. But it's actually an intriguing glimpse into the nature of work in a robotic future, and the way humans will interact with—and adapt to—the machines.