On the ground floor of a towering office building overlooking Tokyo Bay, in a space intended to resemble the interior of a moon base, a convenience store is tended by a humanoid robot.
This robot isn’t out front, wowing customers. No, it is in the back, doing the unglamorous job of keeping shelves stocked. It has broad shoulders, wide eyes, a boomerang-shaped head and strange hands, capable of grabbing objects with both suction and a trio of opposable thumbs.
But the machine isn’t acting on a set of preprogrammed instructions. Like a marionette on invisible, miles-long strings, the robot at the Lawson convenience store is controlled remotely, by a person elsewhere in the city wearing a virtual-reality headset.
Built by Tokyo-based Telexistence, a three-year-old startup, this system is the culmination of nearly 40 years of research, and is the world’s first commercial realization of an audacious goal: to enable a person to do any job on Earth from anywhere else.
Just as Slack, Zoom and countless other tools have made it possible for the world’s white-collar workers to work from home during the pandemic, a second wave of remote-work technology is coming. In many industries, it is already here. This technology—known as telepresence—goes well beyond mere communications and pixel-pushing.