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Interfacing with the Physical, via Robot
If the best way for an individual to live life, as is true for a fair segment
of the population; if they desire happiness, and a life in which they are not
judged for their physical shell, but for whom they are themselves, is to retreat
from the physical, into the virtual, then this brings up certain challenges.
We are looking here, beyond the sheer medical complexities of sustaining a
life in which the shell is but undesired chattel, mere flesh acting as a life
support component for a brain hooked into another form, a virtual form.
We look instead at what happens when you cast off the physical shell, and either
descend or ascend, depending on your point of view, into another life, a better,
For all but a very few people, the ability to 'wall off' the outside world
permanently will not be present, due to the necessity of paying bills, maintaining
equipment, and the all-but-discarded physical forms.
Not to mention still communicating with loved-ones, pursuing careers, and being
aware of the world around. Much, if not most of that can be accomplished via
virtual reality. However, it seems harsh to force everyone else to come to you,
rather than going o them, as much.
The concept of utilising robots for telepresence is not a new idea. It does
not matter to the robot, nor to the people on the other end, if it connects
a physical visage or a virtual visage. What matters is it is able to experience
the physical world, the world cast off. It is able to navigate it, and attend
meetings in locations where there may not be other equipment at all.
The concept of 'being there without going', or telepresence, is a familiar
Already, we are seeing some limited examples.
Humanoid Remote Waldoes
Hiroshi Ishiguro is a senior researcher at ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication
Laboratories outside Kyoto, in Japan. With a hectic schedule, he has created
a machine in his own image -a robot that looks and moves exactly like him.
It sits on a chair and gazes around the room in a very humanlike fashion,
just like its creator. In fact, the robot is an exact duplicate.
It blinks and fidgets in its seat, moving its foot up and down restlessly,
its shoulders rising gently as though it were breathing. These micro movements
are so convincing that it's hard to believe this is a machine - it seems more
like a man wearing a rubber mask. But a living, breathing man.
However, it is little more than a puppet, and this is what makes it so interesting,
as an example of a virtual life.
Everything the robot says and does - beyond the idle movements, and the little
ticks that make it seem alive - is controlled by Ishiguro. The robot's lips
move to sync with the sound of Ishiguro's voice coming out of it. It is (conservatively)
expected that we will have artificial, computer-controlled voices capable
of replicating the human voice by 2017, so even this can be controlled from
within the virtual, without a functional physical body.
The robot can be operated remotely so the robot reproduces the voice, posture
and lip movements of Ishiguro, who wears a motion-capture system. As with
all such systems, a full virtual body could replicate this effect just as
easily, if not more easily if a brain is wired directly in.
Ishiguro, whose job is teaching at Osaka University, an hour's drive away,
designed his robot so he could "robot in" to his classes and skip
"The idea is tele-interaction," says Ishiguro, who is also head
of the university's Intelligent Robotics Laboratory. "If I access the
android through the internet, I do not need to go to ATR anymore."
Ishiguro is mainly using the bot to teach his classes for him, and creep
out students with lifelike movements such as blinking, "breathing"
IvanAnywhere is the name programmer Ivan Bowman has given to a home-made
telepresence robot that lets him attend meetings, chat with colleagues, and
generally lurk around his office in Waterloo, Canada, from the comfort of
his home some 1,350 kilometres away in Nova Scotia.
After Bowman relocated to Nova Scotia, he found teleconferencing made it
difficult to interact properly with his co-workers. His work colleagues tried
to adapt by placing a webcam at the meeting table.
But Bowman soon found it too frustrating to hear his colleagues chatting
away just out of earshot in another room. They then tried putting the webcam
on a remote-controlled truck, and Bowman became a menace underfoot, careening
around, out of sight and whacking people in the shin.
Finally, they found a more suitable remote-controlled platform and mounted
everything on top of it, at head-height, using a pole. Both Bowman and his
co-workers seem to be happy with the arrangement. He can easily wheel IvanAnywhere
into someone's office for a quick chat and attend meetings in different parts
of the office.
Again, as with the robot teacher, there is no reason why a device that is
basically a webcam/ microphone and a screen/speakers, has to get it's data
from the physical world. It could just as easily be wired into the virtual,
as a conduit between the two.
In closing, it seems robotic telepresence is catching on, with or without life
in the virtual. With this trend already starting, it seems perfectly possible
for someone whose life is in VR, to interact through that VR, out to people
in the physical world, relatively seamlessly.
On the flip side, technologies already exist to translate the physical world
the robot sees, into a 3D model in the virtual, so you can memorise where things
are that you are not looking at at the time. Currently they are neither quick
nor efficient, but they did not even exist two years ago.
In fact, with additional cameras you would actually gain an advantage over
those physically present. You would be able to see behind you without turning
the robot's head, and see collisions coming.
Visiting the family by robot
Developing a robotic presence at work
Hiroshi Ishiguro builds his evil android twin: Geminoid HI-1