Machiavellian Virtual Presence

by Bruce Kasanoff on November 16, 2011

When Jake Tremblay stopped going to meetings, he claimed it was because a painful back injury made sitting and travel uncomfortable, and that he felt embarrassed that he sometimes needed to lie down on the floor to relieve the pain.

In retrospect, that probably was an elaborate cover story. Let’s count the advantages the eccentric investor gained by sending his virtual presence robot instead of attending meetings himself:

1.) Look me in the eye

Jake Junior, as he calls the R2-D2 shaped device, contains two cameras inside a swivel head. It’s believed that the real Jake uses a Kinect-type set of sensors that enables him to turn Junior’s head when he turns his own. The cameras simulate eyes, making it possible for Jake to look around the room just as he could if actually there.

But attendees have reported watching the camera lenses zoom longer than necessary to refocus on one face then another. They guess that Junior focuses in tight enough to see irises contract or widen, and to even see minute changes in skin tone and perspiration.

In other words, Junior knows when you are nervous, better than the guy next to you.

2.) If I heard you correctly

Junior’s audio capabilities are likely much greater than a normal human being. Tremblay invested in an audio technology firm that does work for the Defense Department, and he has access to highly sophisticated technology. So when you whisper something at the end of the table, Tremblay can hear it, through his robot.

Junior also functions as an instant translator, instantly deadening the sound of any words it recognizes as spoken in a language other than English and replacing them with their English equivalents. We know this because Tremblay occasionally starts debating a foreign speaker before the official translation has been completed.

3.) Don’t bother reading my lips

Aside from where he looks and what he says, Junior is impossible to read. Tremblay refuses to have his image be shown in a meeting, giving him a huge advantage. Participants can’t read his body language or facial expressions.

Some executives speculate that Junior also contains a “self-control” switch. During tense discussions, they report that Tremblay’s voice seemed to get unnaturally calm, almost deadened, as though Tremblay enabled a filter that prevented any rapid changes in tone or language from being transmitted at the meeting. In other words, even if he loses his temper, participants won’t know it.

4.) Won’t take no stinking Turing Test

It’s highly likely that Junior can to a certain degree participate in conversations without Tremblay. He has thousands of hours of recordings of Tremblay’s voice, the investor’s portfolio companies long ago leapfrogged Siri’s AI capabilities, and Tremblay is famous for speaking in short, cryptic phrases.

So you never really know whether you are speaking to Tremblay or a machine. Nor do you know how many copies of Junior exist, or how many meetings Tremblay conducts at one time. Some guess four or five.

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Author’s note: I found these videos after writing the story…

VGo Communications… “represents a person in a distant location.”

Written by Bruce Kasanoff of Now Possible, where science fiction meets business.

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