Last year, Samsung unveiled the future of Artificial Intelligence-powered technology—lifelike, artificial humans called NEON. These were video chatbots that could become anything from a house nanny to your yoga instructor. They would be virtual, of course, but still feel alive.
Then, as the pandemic intensified its grip in 2020, we saw graduates at the Indian Institutes of Technology in Mumbai and Guwahati receiving their degrees through their own digital avatars. Whether you are prepared for them or not, digital avatars—both in the virtual and physical sense—are the next big step in human-machine interaction.
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Now, two Indian teams are part of a four-year global competition to develop an avatar system that will transport a human’s presence and actions to a remote location in real time. The ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition recently announced its list of 38 semi-finalist teams—spread across 16 countries—which must design a “physical robotic avatar” that enables its operator to interact within a remote environment as if they are truly there.
A total prize purse of $10 million is up for grabs in 2022. In a recent tweet, Balaji Viswanathan, the CEO of Invento Robotics, which created the “Mitra” robot, described the competition as the “Olympics for technology”. Invento is part of the Chennai-based Virtual Sapiens team, one of the two semi-finalists from India.
“One of the challenges in developing such a digital avatar system is obviously the hardware challenge of making the actual robot. There are so many motors that one would need to fit in a limited amount of space. It is indeed a very complex system,” says Raviteja Upadrashta, a member of the AHAM Avatar team, the other semi-finalist from India.
This team comprises members from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, ARTPARK (Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Technologies Park), Tata Consultancy Services, Hong Kong-based company Hanson Robotics and US-based BeBop Sensors, which creates smart fabric sensing platforms. The avatar system AHAM is creating is called “Asha”—a teleoperated robotic nurse that can be controlled by a real-life nurse from a remote location.
A recent demonstration video, which shows the team’s submission for the semi-final selection, explains how Asha works. Using a virtual reality (VR) headset, control pedals and remote-sensing gloves, the operator moves the robot around. It responds to a mock patient’s call for assistance. Asha, holding a digital thermometer, checks the patient’s temperature. She also offers him a glass of water, moving slowly, yet seamlessly, across the test floor area. When the operator says “Asha is happy”, the robot smiles, even mimicking a “thumbs up” gesture and repeating phrases, among other reactions. All this happens via the operator.
“Apart from the obvious hardware challenge, with regard to the teleoperation solution, one of the key challenges one would need to overcome is to create an immersive experience for the operator of the avatar,” Upadrashta says on email. “Virtual reality and haptic feedback are two key technologies that can make a difference here.”
Upadrashta says Asha could be useful for a variety of applications—healthcare, education, retail. These, he adds, are sectors where there is a need for the robot to interact with people and to be able to project basic human emotions.
But can we trust robots to do a better job? There’s growing evidence and research to suggest that we actually do. Last October, American computer technology company Oracle released a study on AI, workplaces and mental health. The findings showed that a huge part of the global workforce, especially the younger generation, was open to having a robot as their therapist. “Eighty-four per cent of Gen Z and 77% of millennials said they prefer to talk to a robot over their managers about stress and anxiety at work,” the report notes. More than 12,000 employees, managers, HR leaders, and C-level executives across 11 countries, including India, were surveyed for this study.
The covid-19 pandemic has thrown up an entirely new set of scenarios that could possibly be addressed through these digital avatars and social robots. “This is still an evolving field,” says Upadrashta. “But imagine a situation where front-line healthcare workers could attend to patients through the avatar without having to put their lives at risk.”