Imagine controlling a robotic avatar capable of extreme tasks, such as picking through debris after a natural disaster or repairing machinery in hostile environments. Sounds like science fiction, right? Well, the folks at the nonprofit X Prize Foundation want you to turn it into science fact.
The X Prize Foundation’s ANA Avatar XPrize, scheduled to take place over the next four years, will pay out $10 million to whomever figures out how to merge technologies such as artificial intelligence (A.I.) and augmented reality with robotics, with the ultimate goal of creating a “multipurpose avatar system that will seamlessly transport human skills and experience to the exact location where and when they are needed,” in the words of the website.
Those scenarios could include healthcare, disaster relief, and “multipurpose utility” such as maintenance or repairs. The ultimate avatar will allow the human controller to see, hear, touch, and interact with a remote environment. Tech pros will need to front their own development funds, and two panels will ultimately judge the work: an advisory board of “experts,” and a judging panel “diverse enough to fairly evaluate the various technologies and approaches.”
There’s no guarantee of success, of course. The X Prize Foundation previously offered $10 million to whomever could launch a reusable manned spacecraft twice within two weeks; that award, dubbed the Ansari X Prize, was eventually awarded to Burt Rutan, who designed the experimental space-plane SpaceShipOne. However, no team managed to claim the Google Lunar XPrize, which would have paid out a stunning $30 million to whomever reached the Moon. (“Space is hard,” as astronaut Scott Kelly once memorably Tweeted.)
Whatever team wins the Avatar XPrize will need to combine hardware on the scale of Boston Dynamics’ acrobatic robots with a very sophisticated software package. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the final product (if one ever reaches the testing and deployment stage) will require a hefty dose of machine-learning and computer-vision aptitude in order to supplement the human operator. (In fact, it’s questionable whether that $10 million would cover the eventual development costs.)