SANTA CLARA -- I had never been a robot before, so I thought I'd give it a try.

The idea came from Robert de Neve, the CEO of a Santa Clara company that provides many manufacturing services for companies, including robots to help them keep tabs on global suppliers. If I couldn't find the time to come take a tour of E Systems Technology, he said, why not stay put and tour the place via telepresence robot?

"You'd be like in its brain," de Neve said. "You would see us and I would walk you around. That's what's neat. You become one."

OK, neat. Or weird.

But why not? De Neve assigned me to QS, a friendly-looking robot -- about 3 to 6 feet tall (adjustable), 35 pounds, with a screen that would show my face and give me the ability to see, hear, speak and roll around on two wheels. I'd run the thing by logging into a website and moving the robot, made by an E Systems unit called Anybots, with the arrow keys on my laptop.

It was pretty easy to move around. (OK, I'd really like to apologize to the E Systems technician that I collided with while he worked diligently at his bench. I hope he's back at work soon.) And the interface worked just like de Neve said it would. When I logged on from my home office in Palo Alto, I could see I was "in" the E Systems lobby in Santa Clara. A robot receptionist stood behind a podium. (It was nice to be with my people.) I rolled up to her. I rolled into her. And then backed up.


Advertisement

"Take me to your leader," I said. (Little robot humor.)

Soon de Neve appeared. (I'd shake your hand, but I don't have any.) I spent the first few minutes of our conversation looking up de Neve's nose. I mentioned the problem and de Neve kindly gave me a head adjustment so we could see eye-to-camera.

De Neve led on, and my virtual me managed reasonably well, turning corners, trying to stay near the center of long cubicle-lined aisles. "Just take your time," de Neve said encouragingly. "Just line up, go straight. And if you need to turn, just stop and pivot." My confidence built; my speed increased. And I did see that filing cabinet. I did. Just before I hit it.

"That's OK," de Neve said, ever the gracious host. "We're getting some tech support."

I wondered if robots blush. And I wondered whether E Systems has a "you break it you buy it" policy on its robots. (The thing costs $9,700.)

No question life as a robot takes some getting used to. Still, I couldn't pass up the chance. Robots have been getting buzz for years, decades maybe. But the buzz has been particularly loud lately. Robots are helping power the surge in U.S. manufacturing. They're behind the galloping productivity increases of American workers -- which is strange, because essentially robots are making American workers more productive by getting rid of American workers. Google (GOOG) is experimenting with robotic cars. We're fighting wars with robotic planes. And all manner of outfits in Silicon Valley are at work on robots that do everything from manufacture to medicate.

Robert de Neve, president of E Systems, takes Mercury News columnist Mike Cassidy on a tour of the company’s Santa Clara, Calif. facility through the
Robert de Neve, president of E Systems, takes Mercury News columnist Mike Cassidy on a tour of the company's Santa Clara, Calif. facility through the technology of a bow tie-wearing robot on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. (Karl Mondon/Staff) ( Karl Mondon )

And our robotic potential is as exciting today as it was back in the 1960s when the family robot on "Lost in Space" and Rosie (sometimes Rosey) on "The Jetsons" inspired TV watchers to imagine a day, like by now, when personal robots would help with household chores and errands.

De Neve isn't going there -- and really none of us are for a long, long while.

"The general purpose robots are a very, very long time in coming," David Calkins, who works for Lego Education on its robotics initiative, said when I called to ask about the future of robots in our lives. He pointed out that everyday tasks, like climbing stairs, distinguishing between similar looking objects and making even mildly complex decisions are huge technological hurdles.

But my robot buddy's purpose is to serve as part of E Systems' bigger business, which is tackling the manufacturing process -- from prototyping through final manufacturing -- for companies that would rather focus on research, development and marketing their products. In that regard, Anybots allows companies to virtually meet with designers, attend meetings or visit parts and components suppliers anywhere in the world.

And so maybe today's robots aren't meeting our expectations because our expectations are far out-running technology. No doubt those fans of "The Jetsons" from the 1960s figured robots would be making them martinis by now.

"They can do that now," de Neve says, "but that robot costs $250,000 to $500,000 and breaks every five minutes."

Which is a reality that's enough to leave the virtual me both shaken and stirred.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.



ANYBOTS TALE OF THE TAPE

Height: 6 feet, 2 inches (adjustable down to 2 feet, 8 inches)
Weight: 35 pounds
Wheels: Two
Speed: 5 feet per second
Cameras: Two
Microphones: Three
Base price: $9,700
(Hey, you can rent them for less.)

Source: E Systems Technology