Tuesday, February 01, 2011

How will states adapt to true telecommuters?

Today telecommuting often refers to people who work from home, logging into computer networks to prepare documents and exchange information remotely.

However across the world we're starting to see examples of much broader and more intense forms of telecommuting.

Take for example the RQ-1 Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle that has been used since 1995 by the US Air Force. First used for reconnaissance and armed only with a high resolution camera, the Predator is now routinely equipped with missiles and used to attack ground targets. Predator operators may be hundreds, or even thousands, of mile away and operate their UAVs through video screens like modern computer games.

Similar unmanned devices are being developed for land and sea-based conflict, allowing operators to work normal shifts from bases close to their homes (or even from their homes), while these devices are employed in combat theatres around the world.

Unmanned vehicles are also being adopted in the emergency management field, with controlled robotic devices used to explore hazardous environments ahead of human teams. These devices have been used to map the Chernobyl disaster and recently the CyberQuad was introduced into Australia to support the fire brigade in mapping and fighting large blazes.

Space exploration
Many people will be aware of the Mars Rovers, two robots sent to explore parts of the red planet, seeking signs of surface water and life while expanding our store of knowledge. These robots, similar to those used in emergencies, have been used as a low-cost means of exploring a hazardous and remote environment.

There are pilot programs in a number of countries exploring the potential for doctors, particularly specialists, to remotely diagnose and treat patients. In a world with too few doctors and many remote regions, the ability to have a specialist diagnose patients from a distance is an enormous cost and time saving tool, providing improved health outcomes.

Even more so, the potential for videoconferencing during surgeries, where experienced surgeons can view and collaborate with an on-the-spot colleague during a procedure - or even conduct surgery remotely, employing robotics.

Adult industry
While an area that some might find less delicate, the adult industry has a long history of innovating and employing new technologies. Much of the early innovation on the world wide web had its roots in adult pursuits. Similarly adult operators are exploring the opportunities for remote controlled devices. In fact the field even has a name, coined in 1975, 'Teledildonics' - for computer or remote operator-controlled devices for sexual pleasure.

Virtual worlds and Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMPOGs) have been around now for a number of years (since 1974 in fact), some as games, some as social entertainment experiences and some as business tools. These worlds are growing in immersiveness and flexibility, providing more and more opportunities to conduct mass meetings remotely, demonstrate designs and working (virtual) prototypes and educate students.

Looking forward
With all these forms of 'telecommuting' developments there's three trends I think are important to note.
  • We are increasingly able to control physical devices and perform complex actions at great differences.
  • Our virtual environments are improving to the extent whereby almost-physical interaction is becoming possible, and
  • we are entering a time where an increasing number of people will be able to conduct their business remotely from other states or nations, significantly complicating how taxes are assessed and laws are interpreted and enforced.
With increasing broadband speeds, such as via Australia's National Broadband Network, it will become possible for a range of telecommuting scenarios such as the following three examples.

  • Remote mining exploration and analysisA geologist sitting in their Brisbane office will be able to take control of a contracted robot in the Northern Territory, remotely guide it to an exploration site and conduct a surface analysis and even a seismic survey to assess the mineral potential of the area.

    The information and analysis could be immediately visible to their employer, a Perth-based mining company. The site could be mapped digitally and then have geologists from around the world explore the area virtually - literally 'walking' their avatars over the landscape and discussing specific areas in real-time.
  • Global industrial design
    Equally an industrial design team operating out of Newcastle as a semi-autonomous unit of a Swedish furniture manufacturer could develop new designs for bookcases and chairs and trial them via virtual worlds with other designers and potential customers around the world.

    When a final design is approved it could be automatically loaded into the systems of an offshore manufacturer and produced, either in a fully automatic or manual factory, then shipped to customers around the world.

    As a side project, the designs could also be made available for virtual sale into a range of virtual worlds and games, like the Sims - providing a secondary income.
  • Remote entertainment experiences
    A resident in a nursing home in Wagga Wagga could remain an active gardener through participation in a robotised market garden in the Adelaide Hills. Every day they could go online and check how their plot was developing, using robotic devices to plant seeds, pull weeds and water. When their vegetables were grown they could be harvested and sent to market collectively, with the profits going to offset the costs of the market garden.

    Through virtual technology the resident could walk around, or even fly over the garden with complete mobility. Integrated sensors could simulate the smells and even the feeling of digging in the soil, keeping the resident both entertained and productive, raising their self-esteem and enjoyment of life.

    Residents from nursing homes around the country and overseas could work together, sharing their experience with plants and making collective decisions on how to manage the garden. (The original Telegarden was operational from 1995-2004 as a university experiment)

In all of these situations the data would pass through a variety of Australian states and through international jurisdictions. The individuals performing the actual work do not necessarily own the work, it could be a collaborative effort by individuals across different nations.

We're seeing the inklings of this process now with the increasing digitalisation of products. No jurisdictional restrictions on written, audio, visual or digital interactive material can be effectively and universally enforced when they can be transmitted almost instantaneously across the internet to virtually any country in the world.

The creators of these digital works may also be located anywhere in the world. Collaborators may each live in a different jurisdiction and be subject to different laws and regulation. Whose jurisdiction takes primacy for taxation purposes for a truly virtual organisation? What happens when a digital product is illegal in some jurisdictions and legal in others?

It is even hard to enforce regulation or taxation over physical products, unless governments wish to inspect every single mail item - adding enormous time and cost burdens to an economy.

Identifying which jurisdiction's guidelines apply can already be difficult - is it in the jurisdiction that the work originates, where the servers storing the information live, where the organisation is registered or where the goods and services are sold (at least for physical products, who taxes and regulates virtual items)? What if jurisdictions don't agree?

As teleconferencing becomes more prevalent and more global in nation, governments will increasingly have to reconsider their state-based laws, regulations and taxes to contend with hyper-mobile individuals, workers who can deliver a service using remote assistance anywhere in the world, from driving a delivery vehicle to performing operations, without leaving their own home or neighbourhood.

Perhaps governments should already be taking great strides towards normalising their regulatory approaches,to reduce inefficiencies and ensure that their laws and taxes will remain enforceable as telecommuting rises.

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