Robotic telepresence

Technology is evolving at a rapid pace, especially in the field of transportation. Surprisingly, one of the most important breakthroughs in this field involves not moving at all: the field of robotic telepresence – projecting yourself at a distance through a robotic avatar is taking off. But before delving into this subject, let’s go back and explore how people projected their presence in the past.

Many centuries ago, kings sent messengers, in human or pigeon form, to inform others of their decisions. Smoke and light signals were also used to send messages quickly over hundreds of kilometres. Usually those means were reserved for the elite. Then, a century or two ago, most countries established a postal service which was fairly quick and inexpensive. The postal service allowed everyone, even the poor, to communicate with others across town or even around the world.

More recently, the telegraph and then the telephone allowed communication in real time over thousands of kilometres. Huge electronic networks connecting a significant portion of humanity were laid out in the last 150 years. Those networks carried voice, and later e-mails and web pages: the internet/web was born.

Humans are not bits and bytes and sending messages through an electronic medium doesn’t carry the non verbal cues that are an integral part of human communication. Teleconferencing tried to bridge that gap but teleconferences were expensive. Skype and similar services managed to bring the costs down significantly but people still felt that they had to be physically present in order to communicate effectively. In fact, a significant part of the profits of the travel and hospitality industries are based on that very human need to be physically present when doing business.

Some companies went so far as to build expensive teleconference rooms that allowed people to interact both verbally and non verbally. Then, a few years ago, another solution became feasible: robotic telepresence, the possibility of using robot avatars to represent people that are located elsewhere.

Robotic telepresence can simply be a Segway-type base supporting an iPad, the solution that Double Robotic put forward on the market. This solution is affordable and the Segway-iPad robot avatar seems to be well accepted in the workplace. Of course, the robot can vary from something basic to something more elaborate. One solution is to have the robot map its environment thereby freeing the user from having to navigate it consciously. In fact, the user can simply say “Go to Martin’s office”. In a few years, the robots should even be able to manipulate objects on verbal command or through thought, your thoughts being read directly through a helmet-like device.

The possibility of tele-manipulating the environment raises an interesting issue. Most of us are familiar with long distance calls going through optic fibres laid down on the ocean floor: there is no significant time lag allowing for calls to occur smoothly. That was not the case a few decades ago when calls were transmitted via satellite. Back then, the lag was quite noticeable making for fairly difficult conversations. That lag was due to the fact that the signal had to travel at the speed of light (around 300,000 km/s) to a satellite in geostationary orbit and then back to Earth, a round trip of about one hundred thousand kilometres. Now, the signal travels through optic fibres and typical distances are usually less then 20,000 kilometres.

This means that even if you can have a smooth teleconference everywhere on Earth through a robot avatar you will not be able to tele-manipulate the robot’s environment effectively unless you have some kind of imbedded robotic intelligence to assist you. The reason for this is that typical lags of around one tenth of a second are quite acceptable for a teleconference but when one plays a computer game, for example, time lags of around one hundredth of a second are required.

One can even go one step further. Experiments in Switzerland with robotic avatars have shown that it is possible to have “out of body experiences” if you are allowed to see only through the robot’s eyes with the aid of virtual reality goggles: you then feel that the robot’s body is really your body, so much so that when someone touches your robotic avatar you have the impression that you are being touched even if there are no pressure sensitive detectors on the robot’s “skin”! At that stage, you have projected your own consciousness in the robotic avatar and, therefore, it could be said that “you” are located where your avatar is located! Is it not rather surprising that the speed of light is just fast enough to make this incredible experience possible on a planetary scale?

The possibility that one could project one’s presence through a robotic avatar anywhere on Earth raises several issues, not least of which legal ones. In fact, a few months ago, Edward Snowden tested those very boundaries by using a simple robotic avatar to give a TED conference in the US. Imagine that this avatar, instead of the simple device that it was, would have been a sophisticated robot allowing Snowden to travel anywhere in the United States!

This new technology also opens up numerous possibilities. We could travel virtually to distant places. Already Marriott Hotels allow you to step in a booth in New-York City and feel as if you were physically located somewhere in Hawaii. They even take care of the smell of the ocean! Of course, virtual telepresence could have a huge impact on the travel industry: airlines, restaurants and hotels might see a drop travel and revenues. The insurance industry also might be impacted: what is the risk of being injured if you only project yourself in distant places? Will our avatars require cyber liability risk coverage? Finally, we could imagine a mix of genres where one’s avatar is an autonomous vehicle. You could “be” a car going down route 66…

Photo credit: VGO

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