“Here” is a funny word. So says Scott Hassan, the media-shy Silicon Valley billionaire who once set out to build the first fully autonomous humanoid robot, and ended up hawking what looks like a flatscreen atop two long legs with wheels. If Hassan has his way, this seemingly simple device—called a Beam—will close the loop between cyberspace and meat-space.
The Beam was designed as a video conferencing tool, allowing instant, face-to-face communication—kind of like FaceTime or Skype, except you can drive the screen on legs around the room remotely, with a keyboard. It could one day become much more. Those with disabilities can have access to a rudimentary body that allows them to go where they otherwise can’t. (Edward Snowden has famously used one in his public appearances.) As Beams proliferate, you could transport yourself over to visit a family member across the country, or to tour Paris or Hong Kong for the afternoon. There has been speculation that the Beam might even eventually sprout arms, making it more like a body. Hassan won’t confirm these rumours, but he won’t deny them either.
In a future where we can zap ourselves over the internet into different robot bodies around the world, “here” won’t just be here anymore, Hassan believes. It’ll be anywhere.
Recently, while visiting my family in Halifax, I beamed into Hassan’s office in Palo Alto, where Suitable Technologies Inc., the company that makes the Beam, is based. I found him there waiting for me, gazing intently into the camera of the Beam I was manipulating. Hassan is extremely alert and attentive, and comes across as an over-caffeinated genius: generous with his ideas, but also impatient that you keep up. He rarely does interviews, though he’s one of the most important figures in modern robotics.