The avatars of the robot have been a staple of science fiction for decades, allowing fictitious humans to remotely perform delicate and skilled tasks, from hospital care to mining on the Moon. But, as usual, our imagination surpasses reality. The best commercially available "avatars" are telepresence bots, which are little more than iPads on wheels, while avant-garde humanoid robots look flashy but struggle to keep their balance. The X Prize Foundation wants to change this, and today announced its final challenge: to build "real world avatars" by 2021.
According to the modus operandi of the foundation, the objective here is to stimulate the development by offering cash prizes to the teams. Researchers will register to enter the prize and develop avatars (the deadline for registration is October 31) and must meet certain criteria. There will be two important prizes in 2020 and 2021 with a value of $ 1 million each, and a grand prize of $ 8 million.
"Imagine a remote village with a unique avatar system that provides utility to everyone."
The foundation has not detailed the challenges and exact specifications that these avatars should meet, but the broad strokes are ambitious. Teams will have to create avatars that allow users to "see, hear, touch and interact remotely with physical environments and other people" from 100 kilometers away. These robot avatars must also be able to "perform tasks in a variety of real-world scenarios", citing future applications such as helping to provide "critical care and deploying immediate emergency responses in natural disasters". The prize is sponsored by the Japanese airline ANA.
Speaking to The Verge, X Prize Foundation CEO Marcus Shingles said the goal was to create a truly multipurpose robot. We have already developed robots for specialized tasks, such as offshore mining and transferring patients to hospitals, but the most difficult part is creating a machine that can take on a variety of tasks, such as a human being.
"It's meant to be multipurpose," says Shingles. "Imagine a remote village with a unique avatar system that provides utility to all the villagers, the robot could be controlled by different operators to repair solar panels, help with carpentry and many other jobs."
The logo of the newly announced avatar X Prize.Image: X Prize Foundation
Shingles says he imagines that the winning team could combine several existing technologies, including virtual reality and artificial intelligence. But, he says, the foundation does not want to be too specific about what it thinks the final design would be. Following the humanoid route is certainly a possibility (especially if you want the robot to be able to use tools built for humans), but it is not a certainty.
"We even hesitate to give some graphic image of what the avatar looks like because we do not want to direct the witness too much," says Shingles. "That's also why we're not going to be really specific about what you have to do in the final [tests] because if we say you have to dig a hole, we're going to have a group of teams making avatars with shovels"
As for the current developments in cutting-edge robotics, it is also difficult to imagine that a robot with legs will get very far in that competition. As we have seen in events like the DARPA Robotics Challenge, bipedalism is still a human specialty. It just takes a lot of work to maintain balance using electric or pneumatic motors, when four legs are more stable and the wheels are faster. But, if the prize money can attract research teams, the X Prize Foundation could end up promoting new paradigms, which the institution hopes will lead to new products that benefit humanity.
"Every time we do an X Prize, we are always looking to generate commercial appeal, because if we can create that advanced technology, we need the market to help it adopt it, expand it and lower the price," says Shingles.
Of course, just because there is money on the line does not mean that the problem is solved. The Lunar X Prize, which aimed to get rovers on the Moon with private funds, came to nothing in January when all the teams involved missed the deadline. But even a flaw can drive the field, and this last X Prize hopefully will achieve more than that.