The Rise of Artificial Intelligence: What’s Going on Now

Michael Cleland

Although James Cameron’s 2009 film “Avatar,” which is set in 2154, seems like a far stretch from reality, the first steps toward experimenting with robot surrogates have been taken. Avatar technology will prove to be able to forever change what science can accomplish for humanity.

Of the many definitions of avatar, the online free dictionary contains a derivative that is the most relevant today, “a movable image that represents a person in a virtual reality environment or in cyberspace.”

Recent precedents have proven that avatar-related technology has evolved into “movable entities” representing another person, rather than just an image. Experimentation has ranged from virtual reality avatars and telepresence avatars to mind-controlled avatars.

Mind-Control Avatar

In July 2012, ExtremeTech reported that Tirosh Shapira, an Israeli student, was the first person to ever control a humanoid robot by thought alone. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, Shapira commanded the robot surrogate at the Beziers Technology Institute in France, some 1,250 miles away from where he was stationed in Israel.

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The image shows Tirosh Shapira’s brain signals and the robot he is controlling. Shapira is controlled the robot by thought alone.

“When Shapira thinks about moving forward or backward, the robot moves forward or backward; when Shapira thinks about moving one of his hands, the robot surrogate turns in that direction,” according to ExtremeTech.

This breakthrough in avatar technology was made possible by a functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, scanner—a complex, expensive piece of equipment used to measure brain activity. “The fMRI read [Shapira’s] thoughts, a computer translated those thoughts into commands, and then those commands were sent across the Internet to the robot in France,” according to ExtremeTech.

Human and Animal Interaction through Telepresence

In October 2012, Science Daily reported on a study that involved a man and a rat interacting with one another using robot avatars.

According to Science Daily, “The researchers define ‘beaming’ as digitally transporting a representation of yourself to a distant place, where you can interact with the people there as if you were there. This is achieved through a combination of virtual reality and teleoperator systems.”

The man and the rat were situated in separate facilities, and tracking data allowed for their avatars, placed in the same room, to interact. The man controlled a rat avatar, and the rat controlled the human avatar, according to Science Daily. By reversing the avatar roles of the rat and man, scientists anticipate it will lead to learning new insights about human-animal interaction.

Artificial Intelligence used to Help the Ill or Disabled

Though avatar surrogates haven’t hit the market, and are far from affordable to the average middle-class citizen, technology entrepreneurs have completed innovate projects that have allowed for a select few disabled or ill persons to have the benefit of being able to own a robotic surrogate to aid them in their daily life.

Fox News reported on a relatively new telepresence project called NetHead, created by Peter Wilford after he broke his hip riding his bike.

“On his computer, Wilford installed eye-tracking software. When he looked at someone in a meeting, the NetHead looked in the same direction,” according to Fox News. “Audio software amplified the voice of whoever was speaking; something the human brain does naturally. The system will eventually relay information back to the remote computer about the tone of the room and even whether everyone is laughing at a joke.”

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This is an Anybot in an office. Credit: The Anybots website

According to Fox News, other telepresence robots have hit the market, such as the MantaroBot and the Anybots, with the Anybots retailing for $15,000. Another robot inventor, Robert Oschler, is working on Robodance 5, and plans to retail it at $600, according to Fox News.

Robot Goes to School

Elementary school student Devon Carrow is too sick to be physically present at school, and so instead, a 4-foot-tall robot attends school in his place.

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The VGo robot makes it possible for Devon Carrow to attend school, even though he can’t be there physically.

“The robot senses stairs and stops, but even they aren’t insurmountable because, at 18 pounds, the robot is light enough for a teacher to lift,” according to the Maine Sun Journal. “Before moving forward, Devon scans the camera downward to make sure he won’t run into a classmate who might be crouching to tie a shoe.”

The robot is called VGo, is made by Verizon, and is worth $6,000. The robot is covered by the district’s budget, according to the Maine Sun Journal.

Transhumanism: On the Brink of Immortality

An article entitled, “First Gene Therapy Successful Against Aging-Associated Decline: Mouse Lifespan Extended up to 24 percent With a Single Treatment,” proved that the therapy may be—after much work—successful in doing the same with humans.

If treated with gene therapy early in a mouse’s lifespan, the lifespan of the mouse can be extended, as well as increase their health. This is achieved by replacing the telomerase enzyme—which is responsible for aging—with a DNA-modified virus. In this way, the therapy is able to “reset the biological clock,” according to Science Daily.

For anti-aging therapy in humans, it is essential that a non-pathogenic virus is used to alter cells. “Although this therapy may not find application as an anti-aging treatment in humans, in the short term at least, it could open up a new treatment option for ailments linked with the presence in tissue of abnormally short telomeres, as in some cases of human pulmonary fibrosis,” according to Science Daily.

It’s likely the vast majority of Americans won’t be wowed about these kinds of breakthroughs until robot avatars go to the commercial market. But a promising pattern of technological progression has begun. With small but promising advancements, robot avatars may very well be ubiquitously available during our lifetime.

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