The Mixed Reality Commute: Education for the Telepresence Gig Economy

First there were remote-operation robots for nuclear waste clean up, then remote-operation drone warfare. Now we’ve moved on to the rather more mundane task of remote-operation fast food delivery. I was motivated to finally sit down and start to write the back-story to defense department simulations and workforce-aligned project based learning after seeing a tweet about Kiwibots.


It’s a complex story, so this will be the first of a multi-part series.

Here I will touch on robotics, mixed reality, and Blockchain within the context of a globalized service-sector workforce. I then plan to discuss:

1) How Executive Order 13111, signed by Bill Clinton in 1999, set up a national training advisory committee whose members linked the work-based education model described in Marc Tucker’s “Dear Hillary Letter” to technology and debt finance.

2) The military origins of competency based education and “intelligent” digital tutoring systems.

3) How the entertainment industry teamed up with the Defense Department in the mid 1990s to develop mixed reality training environments using games and simulations, which resulted in the creation of USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies.

4) How global philanthropies and video game developers plan to using Transmedia storytelling, developed by the military, to catalyze behavior change in service of impact investing markets, and how that intersects with developments in digital medicine, executive function brain training, and mental health assessment.

5) How Blockchain credentialing will link wearable technology and virtual reality to demonstrations of competencies for globalized AI human resource contracting.

6) The role the National Laboratory for Education Transformation has played in creating infrastructure for the digital engineering of US labor.

7) Lastly how Convergence’sEducation Reimagined” campaign aligns with the above.

I want to first draw your attention to an excerpt from a 2014 white paper prepared by the American Alliance of Museums on the future of education. In it Elizabeth Merritt, founder of their Center for the Future of Museums, posits a future where today’s children no longer have access to “traditional jobs,” but rather must patch together bits of work meted out in a TaskRabbit economy. Thus schools need to be transformed to facilitate that transition.


The last time I was in New York, over the summer, it seemed TaskRabbit had bought up much of the advertising space on the subway system. Poster after poster extolled the merits of hiring someone via app to watch children or put together Ikea bookcases. What I want to point out here is that while TaskRabbit represents SOME of the work being contracted out on gig platforms, quite a lot of precarious labor is actually service sector work that has been pushed online. Consider the many underpaid teachers trying to pay their bills by picking up early-hours shifts tutoring kids in China through VIP Kid. Now combine platformed work with remote control robotics, and looks like we’ve got a whole new ball game for dislocated “labor” coming in the next decade or so.

Ok, now more about Kiwibot.

Frank Pasquale Kiwibot

Kiwibot pays Colombians $2 per hour to operate vehicles with GPS and cameras. The robots complete the last leg of app-initiated fast food delivery runs thousands of miles away on Berkeley’s campus. Apparently someone decided it was more cost effective to use robots for part of the route than to pay human couriers to do the entire thing: globalized lean production enabled by human-computer interfaces. I have a friend who’s quite prescient in her assessment of labor automation. In her view, robots won’t actually replace people over the short run, but instead ensure the work left to be done is wretched, physically and mentally taxing, and under-paid. A squad of contingent labor, remote control fast food robot operators waiting on college students at an elite, Bay Area university seems to exemplify this perfectly. So many layers of wrong here. SO MANY.

Kiwibot Burrito Robot

It’s not surprising this would show up at Berkeley. This spring, university researchers announced the roll out of Blue, a relatively inexpensive ($5,000) lightweight robot for domestic use. Blue is designed to learn by doing AND from human assistants-remote operators. Yes, it seems we are supposed to teach the robots to be more human so they can replace us.

Domestic robots are now under development in Japan, which has actually welcomed the use of social robots as pets and companions for the children and the elderly. By 2020 wealthy households may be able to rent glorified Roombas with a low-wage workers in other countries attached. Beyond clothes folding, advances are also being made in remote-control robots designed for security, policing, and ground-based combat. Coming upon one of QINETIQ’s MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System) robots, developed in coordination with the US Army and Marine Corps, in a remote corner of the Arizona desert would be like something out of a Black Mirror episode. For all you parents with kids in school-based robotics programs, here’s a sneak peek at where this is all headed. #Progress (?)

MAARS Security Robot

Robot Butler Remote

We need to understand the “future of work” so keenly discussed in Davos and at Aspen Institute meet-ups revolves around the so-called “knowledge economy,” stuff folks get paid to do, mostly online. People mashed up with digital technologies, labor conditions where human-computer-robot-artificial intelligence interactions in mixed (augmented and virtual) reality environments will become increasingly commonplace. Labor broken down into an infinite menu of “skills,” both cognitive and social-emotional-behavioral, that are represented as badges or codes (imagine health care billing codes) that can be screened at lightening speed by algorithms assigning micro-work.

Besides remote-controlled robotics, we also have telepresence robots where a moveable apparatus holds a device allowing a person to interact remotely through the screen. The first time I saw this was an interview with Edward Snowden who’s evidently been using a “Snowbot” since 2014. It’s being normalized in education and healthcare settings, too. The latter got quite a bit of negative attention after a robot doctor gave a patient at a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Fremont, CA a terminal diagnosis.

And now telepresence robots with hands and haptic sensor gloves for the operators.

While there are benefits, like the ability to work from home, the flip side is that if YOU can do the work remotely, OTHERS can, too…from parts of the world where wages are much lower. Hence the Kiwibot scenario. So now freelance “knowledge workers” are going to be forced to compete for gigs against peers across multiple time zones. Everyone will have to become an entrepreneur of their quantified self, curating a digital brand to sell over and over and over in a globalized marketplace.

We started with offshored customer service and IT support, and now we’re looking at the worldwide Uberization of education, healthcare, and other service jobs. On demand skills for just-in-time-tasks contracted out with no stability or benefits to profit those who already have way too much stuff and power. It’s a plan only Bezos, Thiel, Zuckerberg, and Goldman Sachs could love.

To add yet another wrinkle, advances in haptic controllers (technologies that provide tactile feedback in digital environments like virtual reality) mean we will likely see remote workers not only managing screen-based work, but also being virtually present in remote locations doing “physical” work via robotic interfaces in the not too distant future. So, not just burrito delivery robots, but also remote-operation machinists or, as depicted in the Microsoft video below, blackjack dealers. Ericsson in Sweden is a leader in developing cutting-edge, fourth industrial revolution factories. They, too, are developing remote operation, virtual reality haptic systems.

Ericsson Haptics

Another crucial take-away from the Kiwibot business plan is the concept of micro-work. In the repressive world of managerial consulting, everything revolves around creating efficiencies in globalized supply chains. Imagine Fordism, but without living-wage salaries; breaking down tasks into smaller and smaller chunks people must cobble together to attempt to meet their basic needs.

Amazon launched the MTurk crowd-sourced micro-work platform in 2005, a decade after the WTO was set up. A 2015 study done by Donna Vakharia (now at PayPal) and Matthew Lease at UT Austin compared paid crowd work platforms other than MTurk, identifying areas for further investigation to advance the market sector. The info-graphic below shows areas needing improvement: namely, collection of worker analytics for quality control and automation of work assignments.


Crown Work Table UT Austin 2014


The other part of the micro-work equation is how the outsourcing is done, the micro-contracts for work and payments. In late-stage, globalized capitalism, scale and speed are paramount. There is little time for back and forth evaluating a worker’s skills or contracting out the tasks. That’s the niche Blockchain is intended to fill. Self sovereign digital identities are intended hold a person’s competencies, reputation scores, legal documents and facilitate work and payment agreements.

Given the globalized nature of the digital TaskRabbit economy, there are bound to be serious implications for labor compensation. Rather than wrangling transactions among various fiat currencies, isn’t is more likely the trend will be towards virtualized tokens, essentially scrip? In late August at a meeting of central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Mark Carney of the Bank of England proposed the idea of a”synthetic hegemonic currency” along the lines of Facebook’s Libra digital currency to replace the US dollar as a reserve currency.

During his tenure, Carney has been a supporter of using government funds to catalyze impact investing in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and to mobilize private “social capital.” He’s quoted in this 2017 report on impact markets in the UK, “The Rise of Impact: Report of the UK National Advisory Board on Impact Investing.” The board was launched two decades ago under Gordon Brown and established Big Society Capital, Sir Ronald Cohen’s vehicle for Social Impact Bond development.

Carney Libra Currency

UK Outcomes Lab Carney

UK NAB Impact Investing

And when powerful individuals corner the market on digital labor, compensation, social credit scoring, and access to basic necessities-imagine Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, or Jack Ma? Then they truly become global overlords with the capacity to algorithmically control huge segments of the population, forcing people to comply to draconian behaviorist programs. It’s pretty terrifying to contemplate.

People are conceptualizing how Blockchain contracting and payments could work as seen in the Chinese paper “CrowdBC: A Blockchain-based Decentralized Framework for Crowdsourcing.” Now, they just have to figure out how to scale it.

Blockchain Crowdsourcing

Reputation Management

While Richard Branson, Pierre Omidyar, Bill Gates, and other social entrepreneurs tout digital ID as a way to bring the unbanked into the world economy, what they really mean is they want to be able to tap into the ranks of the global poor to build and maintain “smart” surveillance cities with sweatshop coding work and AI and robotics support. One such program targeting low income people for the digital gig economy is Harvard-educated, Bay Area techie Leila Janah, who set up Samaschool to train low income people to become self-entrepreneurs doing piecework like tagging images to train artificial vision sensors.

SamaschoolLeila Janah Samasource

Automated systems want to be able to tap into a fully flexibilized workforce to get who they want, for the task they need, at the cheapest price, as quickly as possible. They don’t want to pay for workers to live near their factories, which will be located in areas able to be safeguarded against environmental calamity and social unrest. Workers will be forced to live in the flooded or ablaze margins and “commute” via haptic controllers. Oh, and refugees are a growth market for this kind of work, too. See the Dignify platform.

Dignify Microwork

I can’t help but wonder if Bill Clinton had any conception of this when he pushed Congress to support the creation of the World Trade Organization allowing free trade of intellectual property in 1994? Or when Hillary advocated for the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

Now we have officials at the EU talking about an Internet of Humans while the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) sets up working committees framing out fair trade in data sales, global competencies, the harmonization of digital citizens, neurotechnologies for brain machine interfaces, systems of learning engineering, and social impact management systems. With IoT and digital identity, it seems we are on the brink of an era where digital engineering of society at the global level may indeed become a realistic threat, just as Norbert Weiner anticipated all those decades ago.

Below is a timeline with select dates that shows how technology developments intersect with legislative policy, globalized platformed labor, ed-tech, Internet of Things, and impact investing.

I include Clinton’s policy around “Three Strikes” and “Welfare Reform,” because they are relevant to the discussion of “surplus labor,” especially as automation ramps up. Hard policing as well as the soft policing by bureaucrats of the welfare state will be tapped to manage those who are not inclined to comply with the TaskRabbit global mandate. Those who are unemployed or underemployed or incarcerated or under electronic surveillance will become data-generating profit centers for social entrepreneurs. In the algorithmic gig economy many, many people will be targeted for processing by “evidence-based” impact interventions. Their compliance will be enforced through the Internet of Things and digital public “benefits” proffered as  conditional, programmable money.

Timeline Towards A TaskRabbit, Fin-Tech Economy

1992: Marc Tucker’s “Dear Hillary Letter” (Workforce Aligned Education)

1993: NAFTA Signed

1993: European Union Created

1994: Goals 2000 (Financial Incentives for Education Reform)

1994: Improving America’s School Act (ESEA Renewal, Funding Charters 1995)

1994: School To Work Opportunities Act (Career Pathways)

1994: IBM Launches Reinventing Education Campaign

1994: Three Strikes, “Law and Order” Act

1994: Nick Szabo Proposes First “Smart” Contract

1995: Philanthropy Protection Act (Securities Issued By Charities Exempt From Some SEC Regulations)

1995: World Trade Organization Created, Pending GATT Uruguay Round

1995: Big Picture Learning and Citizen Schools Created

1996: Welfare “Reform” Act

1996: E-Rate Program, Digital Connectivity In Schools / Libraries Established

1996: Entertainment and Defense Interests Meet To Discuss Simulation Technology

1996: Tom Vander Ark Creates First Virtual School, Federal Way Outside Seattle

1997: Florida Virtual School Established Statewide

1997: Rosalind Picard Publishes First Book on Affective Computing

1998: Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative Launched, Military e-learning

1999: IMS Global Launched (Standards for E-Learning and Credentials)

1999: Executive Order 13111 Technology Based Training Program

1999: New Profit Created, Social Impact Investing

1999: First Reference to Internet of Things by Kevin Ashton, Procter and Gamble

1999: Institute of Creative Technologies Launched at USC

1999: Euro First Came Into Use

2000: US Military Begins Using Predator Drones

2001: Embedded Everywhere Whitepaper / Gathering on Internet of Things Agenda

2001: SCORM Launches, Software from ADL for Screen-Based E-Learning

2001: Nellie Mae Founded

2001: Chugach Schools Win Baldridge Award for Competency Based Education

2002: First UNESCO Summit on Open Education Resources (OER)

2002: Naviance Launched

2002: First Grants Issued for Longitudinal Databases

2002: No Child Left Behind Becomes Law

2003: Parchment Digital Credentialing Founded

2003: iNACOL Created To Promote Online Learning

2005: Amazon Starts MTurk Microwork Platform

2005: Immersive Education Initiative Begins to Promote Mixed Reality and Gaming

2005: Data Quality Campaign Established

2006: Strive Together Founded And Project of Knowledgeworks

2007: B Lab (Benefit Corporations) Established

2007: First Discussions Around Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN)

2008: Concept of MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) Developed

2008: First Behavioral Ideas Design Lab Created at Harvard, Became Ideas42

2008: USC Institute for Creative Technologies: Conference on Lifelong Learning Companions

2009: Global Impact Investing Network Formally Launched

2009: Common Core State Standards Launched

2009: Race To The Top Introduced Value Added Model VAM

2009: IBM Launches Smarter Cities Campaign

2010: First Social Impact Bond Issued

2010: Open Badges for Lifelong Learning (MacArthur / Mozilla) Whitepaper

2010: National Broadband Plan Promotes Digital Education

2011: Contract for xAPI Issued for E-Learning on Mobile Devices / Wearable Tech

2011: Google Chromebooks Introduced

2011: Class Dojo Behavior Software Launches

2012: Google Glass Tested

2012: Microsoft Domain Awareness System Installed In Lower Manhattan

2012: EverFi Universal Authentication

2013: Results for America Begins Moneyball for Government

2013: Angela Duckworth Starts Characterlab

2013: United Way Gets Families to Waive FERPA Rights at Community Schools

2013: First Iteration of xAPI Released

2013: inBloom Launched

2013: Utah Data Storage Center Built for NSA

2013: Rockefeller Foundation Promotes Resilient Cities Program

2013: Clinton Foundation Backs Digital Badging Program

2013: First Meeting Education Reimagined

2013: Apple Launches iBeacons (Internet of Things)

2014: Altschool Becomes a Benefit Corporation

2014: PERLS “Anywhere” Micro-Learning App Piloted by ADL for Adult Learners

2014: Lumina Foundation Funds Creation of Competency Based Education Network

2014: Yet Analytics Founded

2014: Baltimore Lighthouse 1:1 Device Program Implemented

2014: Obama Creates Promise Zones

2014: Google Cardboard (VR) First Demonstrated

2014: Google Begins Physical Web Project

2014: Workforce Opportunity and Innovation Act Updated (Education Aligned)

2014: NY State Passes Smart Schools Bond Act

2015: Media Buzz Around Private Micro-Schools

2015: Congressional Caucus of Internet of Things

2015: Learning Accelerator / Blended Learning Incubator Started

2015: IBM Investigates Blockchain for Financial Transactions With Central Banks

2015: Pay for Success Program Funded by Arnold Foundation at Urban Institute

2015: Bloomberg Launches “What Works Cities”

2015: MIT Digital Currency Initiative Started

2015: Upwork Freelance Talent Platform

2015: Google Creates Sidewalk Labs for Ubiquitous Urban Computing

2015: Hickenlooper in Colorado Creates Experiential Learning Commission

2015: IBM Promotes Use of Artificial Intelligence in Education at AFT Conference

2015: Every Student Succeeds Act Passes

2015: Council of Chief State School Officers Set Up Career Pathways Program

2015: Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Begins

2015: Charities Aid Foundation, “Giving Unchained” Blockchain Charity Paper

2016: Microsoft Hololens Goes Public

2016: Gamification Begins To Be Used In HR Recruiting / Screening

2016: Institute For the Future Releases “Learning Is Earning” Video

2016: Clever Single Sign-On QR Codes Come Into Use

2016: ID2020 Forum With UN

2016: FCC Authorizes 5G Wireless

2016: Platform for Advanced Wireless Research Systems Established by NSF

2016: Array of Things IoT System Installed in Chicago

2016: Income Sharing Agreements for Tuition Piloted at Purdue

2016: Big Picture Partners With Salesforce on ImBlaze Competency Tracking App

2016: First Congressional Hearing on Evidence Based Policymaking

2016: First Trial of Blockcerts, Blockchain Credentials by MIT

2016: Trans Pacific Partnership Signed (Never Ratified, Defunct)

2017: IMS Global Joins Mozilla Badges

2017: Rhode Island Becomes Personalized Learning State

2017: Center For the Fourth Industrial Revolution Opens at the Presidio

2017: Augmented / Virtual Reality Congressional Caucus Established

2017: The Future Is Gaming, Entertainment Software Association Panel

2017: Alphabet Launches CityBlock IoT for Urban Healthcare

2017: World Bank Summit on Blockchain

2017: Alibaba Joins ALEC

2018: Ridge Lane Merchant Bank for Impact, Public Private Partnerships Launched

2018: Knowledgeworks Whitepaper on AR/VR Wearable Tech in Education

If we don’t contest the tech oligarchs’ vision, the future of work, for all but the upper echelons, is going to be many flavors of grim, dehumanizing, and soul-sucking labor. Let’s not turn over the reigns to Kiwibots, or Blue, or virtual reality simulation commutes. Instead let us support those groups, like Indigenous peoples and the descendants of the enslaved, who have continually resisted settler colonialism and the devastation of capitalism, now holding hands and jumping into the digital realm. Let us find ways to stand with those fighters as allies in their struggle for community, self-determination and grounded normativity. It won’t be easy, but what other choice do we have? Inaction is not a option.


2 thoughts on “The Mixed Reality Commute: Education for the Telepresence Gig Economy

  1. Linda says:

    This chilling portrayal of task rabbits matches the authoritarian style of GOP government and of wealthy, politically powerful American Catholics.
    The Legatus organization was founded by Stephen Monaghan (Domino’s Pizza, best known for the Ave Maria, Fla. city where he planned to prohibit retailers from selling contraceptives). Tim Busch, one of the most influential Catholic laymen, expanded Legatus, which was originally created for Catholic CEO’s making more than $4 mil. a year (and wives), to 5,000 members and 90 chapters. There is a profile of Timothy Busch in an op ed in the New York Daily News, 9-13-2019, “Pope Francis will have the last word …”. J Peter Grace (9 kids) was a member of Legatus, Order of Malta,…. The Center for Media and Democracy posted an article about a fundraiser for Susan Collins held in the former home of J Peter Grace (WR Grace company-chemicals) which is now owned by Leonard Leo (8 kids) Federalist Society, who ushered Gorsuch and Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court.
    Busch’s break with the U.S. Bishops on labor associations is described in the National Catholic Reporter. (6-12-2019, by Dan Morris Young). BTW-Busch is on the board that owns other major Catholic media.

  2. Linda says:

    Cristo Rey, a Catholic school chain has expanded to almost 1/2 the states. It received more than $18 mil. from the Gates and Cassin Education Initiatives Foundations (the latter specializes in faith sponsored education). The schools reflect the Gates’ prescription, purchase of Common Core-aligned curriculum and blended learning. Similar to the Gates/Z-berg investment in the Bridge International Academies model, the Christensen Institute described a Cristo Rey prototype school in San Jose with 60 students, one teacher, one tutor and one coach.(“Innovative Staffing…”)
    Without local education dollars spent locally, Main Street won’t survive after the loss of economic multiplier effect. Cristo Rey is funded by tax dollars (states like Ohio) through $6,000 a student vouchers. Little Sis which describes powerful interconnected networks cites the Walton Family Foundation and Lynne Harry Bradley Foundations (linked to the Koch’s) as Cristo Rey funders.
    In an interview Gates said he “participates in” the Catholic Church that his wife and kids attend.

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