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The Planet’s Robot Rescuers

Thanks to ever more sophisticated robotic technology, physical commuting may one day be a thing of the past. American companies have started to make “telepresence robots” that allow employees to project themselves into company offices from anywhere around the world. The AP has more:

It’s all made possible by the Beam — a mobile video-conferencing machine that he can drive around the Palo Alto offices and workshops of Suitable Technologies. The 5-foot-tall device, topped with a large video screen, gives him a physical presence that makes him and his colleagues feel like he’s actually there.

“This gives you that casual interaction that you’re used to at work,” Goecker said, speaking on a Beam. “I’m sitting in my desk area with everybody else. I’m part of their conversations and their socializing.”

Suitable Technologies, which makes the Beam, is now one of more than a dozen companies that sell so-called telepresence robots. These remote-controlled machines are equipped with video cameras, speakers, microphones and wheels that allow users to see, hear, talk and “walk” in faraway locations.

Beam is still a new technology and its applications are limited, but along with similar innovations it could have a big effect our approach to environmental issues. Since the industrial revolution we seem to have been caught up in a pattern: industrialization starts by creating environmental disasters, but as technology develops we acquire the wealth and the knowledge to fix them.

This trend holds especially true in our information economy. As the global economy becomes increasingly focused on moving information rather than physical products, new technologies like Beam will allow us to conserve energy and work sustainably. Integrating telecommuting into normal work life will save a lot of the time, money, and energy currently spent on physical commuting, and it will do far more for the planet than all the costly and ineffective treaties and legislation environmentalists currently favor. Nor will the planet be the only beneficiary: families, local governments, and the commuters themselves all would benefit from telecommuting technologies, and from an end to our current unhappy commutes.

There is a general lesson here for the green movement. In many ways, new technologies like Beam are helping the global economy evolve towards more sustainable and eco-friendly practices. Greens should be leaping on developments and opportunities like these, and doing all they can to capitalize on them. Instead, they see themselves as caught up in a political battle against the very forces that are creating the opportunity to build a greener world. Environmentalists need to stop thinking of progress as their worst enemy; it is their best and perhaps their only true friend.

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