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Rise of the machines?

New robots are transforming the remote working experience, building community and improving service

Robots and humans have finally become one at the Global Research Network Operations Center (GlobalNOC) at Indiana University.

Meet Hal and GlaDOS, the two newest members of the GlobalNOC team. Some say they look like iPads on sticks, but don’t let their appearance fool you. By allowing continuous network management, a stronger team bond, and behind-the-scenes tours, these robots mean serious business.

As operational partner for the world’s leading research and education networks, the GlobalNOC’s first priority is ensuring dependable network service. "There are mission critical services on these networks now, and we are taking steps to better maintain the 100% up time we strive for," says Dave Jent, associate vice president of networks for Indiana University.

Watch the robots in action:

To that end, the GlobalNOC has two fully redundant facilities—one in the Cyberinfrastructure Building (CIB) at IU Bloomington and another in the Informatics & Communications Technology Complex (ICTC) at IUPUI in Indianapolis.

Whereas failover tests have always been a part of a disaster readiness regimen, Hal and GlaDOS provide additional tools should both sites be evacuated. Without reliance on a switchover to a regional NOC, "Hal and GlaDOS allow us a physical presence when a physical presence isn’t safe," says Brandon Beale, manager of the GlobalNOC service desk.

An increase in redundancy would be reason enough to look to robots for network management assistance. But in addition to providing another network management location, Hal and GlaDOS have transformed the remote work experience.

Before the robots arrived, maintaining a sense of community among GlobalNOC staff in Indiana and places like Vancouver, Ann Arbor, and Denver meant an occasional visit to a workstation equipped with two-way audio and video.

Inevitably, far-flung workers experienced a delay while engineers relayed what had occurred on the other side of the room. But since Hal and GlaDOS have joined the team, there’s been no need to wait for second-hand news—distant staff members simply roll up and receive information at the same time.

"We thought this was just a solution to replace desktop video, but Hal and GlaDOS have become much more interactive than that. You'll often see groups of people talking and the robot in the middle looking around to see who is talking and following the discussion. This is very interesting and very interactive and it's something we lost just having a one-on-one video," says Jent.

Manufactured by California-based Double Robotics, these $2,500 self-balancing telepresence robots weigh in at about 15 pounds each. An internal motor adjusts the height, and an eight-hour rechargeable lithium ion battery supplies plenty of power.

"If there’s a possibility of me being there in a room for a meeting, I think this is preferable than being up on a TV screen on the wall," said Scott Chevalier, a specialized support technician for Internet2 and International Networks at IU who telecommutes from Evansville, Indiana. "With Hal, I feel I’m more organically in the room."

The robots' value doesn’t end there. Whereas prospective partners previously got an inside look via photos or possibly a video, today the digital pair proffers a front row seat to those thinking of hiring the GlobalNOC.

"They have been wonderful diplomats," says Beale. "When we’re out at conferences, Hal and GlaDOS give us an ability to showcase our state-of-the-art facilities and how we operate in the NOC."

Customers love these new tools and see them as a serious investment illustrating GlobalNOC’s commitment to continually improving service.  Meanwhile, the GlobalNOC staff has embraced Hal and GlaDOS and had some fun with them too.

"When we knew we were going to get them we had a naming contest," Beale says. "We’re a bunch of techies here and this is a cool techie 'toy.' The reward for the best name was that you were the first one to drive it for a day. Needless to say, we got pretty high participation."

Hal, named after the Heuristically programmed Algorithmic supercomputer powering the space ship Discovery One in Stanley Kubrick’s epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, spends most of his time at the ICTC in Indianapolis. GlaDOS, an acronym for Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System, resides in Bloomington, and takes her name from another sentient and malicious computer in the video game Portal.

Beale expects cooperation not world domination from his robots, however. “With the addition of Hal and GlaDOS, remote engineers have the same toolset and can interact in the same way as if they are physically here. We can go to them, they can come to us—the person might as well be here,” Beale notes.

The age of the robot has dawned in the GlobalNOC. Thanks to Hal and GlaDOS, engineers need never miss important conversations or feel separated from the team again. Staff coverage and real time access during unfavorable conditions has improved, and customers can now experience the GlobalNOC for themselves.

Robots have joined the team and the face of the GlobalNOC has changed forever.