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The role of robots in the workplaces of the future

4 November 2014

The role of robots in the workplaces of the future


It was a bizarre scene: a businessman walking through a crowded conference hall, talking to a large piece of machinery. He was caught up in a conversation with a stationary lump of plastic and metal, like an annoyed customer arguing with a vending machine that had stolen his money.

It soon became clear that the machine wasn't stationary and was, in fact, following him through the hall. The executive was engaged in a 'walk and talk' with someone on the other side of the world. A glance at the front of the robot revealed a screen that allows for the latest in mobile telepresence.

Remember the first time you saw someone talking hands-free on a mobile phone? This moment was much the same. Yet the technology has profound implications for the real estate industry.

Talking with technology

"I thought the guy was slightly mad and talking to a box," Jeremy Sheldon, Managing Director, Markets, JLL Asia Pacific, recalls. "But when I looked around the other side I saw there was a 'person' in the screen, so to speak. Then the machine moved away to have a conversation with someone else. I thought, this could be the future."

Sheldon came across the scene at the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Tianjin, China. Later, he used one of the robots to introduce himself to a female executive on one of the screens and they wowed about technology. "Yeah, it's cool, huh?" was her reply.

The applications are wide-ranging. A head of real estate would be able tour a building at his or her leisure and be 'in the room' for a discussion with building management. Cutting down on travel costs and time, this could allow real-estate departments to virtually visit many more sites, understand the tenant experience and lead to quicker decisions.

With a traditional telepresence call, "it is enhanced meeting interaction", Sheldon notes. "But in this case you can move around and look at whatever you want. You can move towards areas you want to examine. You get another level of detail."

Drone technology is already allowing for 'fly throughs' of real estate. But this technology would be able to offer a bounty of data if it was combined with some basic computing and statistical information about a property. Any on-site property examination could be recorded for future reference. Gone would be the days of one staff member wandering around with a point-and-shoot camera.

The virtual workplace

Events on the convention floor in Tianjin became somewhat surreal when Sheldon witnessed three of the robots facing each other, having a three-way virtual meeting from three locations around the world.

The potential for conducting virtual conferences and conventions is huge. On-the-ground executives can mingle with those participating virtually and companies that run may eventually be able to cut back on convention space as a result.  

Half the world's population is connected by mobile devices today. "The future of the Internet is mobile and the 7 billion connections to mobile at present highlight this," Sheldon says.  

Chinese companies will undoubtedly push to be at the forefront of new technology such as this. Speaking in Tianjin, Premier Li Keqiang championed technological advances – both physical and mechanical – in his address welcoming the attendees.

He said: "China's reform and opening up over the past three decades has itself been an innovation drive," Li said in his address.

"Just imagine how big a force it could be when a working population of 900 million all become enthusiastic about entrepreneurship, innovation and creation. The blood of innovation can flow unhampered in society."