Robot gives glimpse into future of telecommuting

A federal government think-tank in downtown Ottawa is road-testing a special robot that allows employees to show up for work, even when they're far from the office.

Ottawa think-tank road-testing machine that lets workers navigate office remotely

Pierre-Olivier DesMarchais can control this robot at his office in Ottawa from his home in Montreal 0:26

A federal government think-tank in downtown Ottawa is road-testing a special robot that allows employees to show up for work, even when they're far from the office.

The robot, which resembles an iPad perched atop a light Segway, can be operated remotely, allowing employees to attend meetings, check in with colleagues and perform other tasks around the office.

"It's a lot of independence that I'm gaining with the robot, compared to traditional teleworking technology," Pierre-Olivier DesMarchais of Policy Horizons Canada, or Horizons, told CBC's Ottawa Morning.

The technology is made by California-based Double Robotics, and Horizons has been testing it for about three years.

Horizons looks into emerging policy issues for the federal government, including how technology can impact the future of work.

DesMarchais had already been working remotely from Montreal when Horizons decided to test out the robot. He said it immediately boosted his independence when it came to such office chores as capturing meeting notes.

"Instead of asking my colleagues to take a picture with their smart phone and sending it to me by email, I can do it by myself."
From Montreal, Pierre-Olivier DesMarchais manoeuvres the robot around the Policy Horizons Canada office in Ottawa. (Deborah MacAskill)

The future of work

The robot's microphone offers much sharper sound than a normal teleconference call, DesMarchais said — although the sensitive equipment can have its drawbacks, too.

"I tend to hear everybody in the room talking at the same time."

There are also complications when it comes to opening doors, a task with which he still has to rely on colleagues for help.

Despite the shortcomings, DesMarchais said his colleagues have warmed to the robot and always greet it with a smile, sometimes even posing for selfies.

"We work a lot on the future of work, at Horizons, trying to see what the future of work could mean," he said. "The robot is part of this objective."

With files from Deborah MacAskill