writings | book Avatar Dreams with foreword by Ray Kurzweil

Creative science fiction stories explore avatar technology.
August 1, 2018

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Dear readers,

We hope you enjoy the new book Avatar Dreams — recommended by best selling author, inventor, and futurist Ray Kurzweil. In the book, leading science fiction authors explore the revolutionary impact of new robot avatar technology in 14 creative stories.

Ray Kurzweil wrote the exciting foreword titled “I Am an Avatar” — available for you to read below. Avatar Dreams is a short story collection, edited by award winning writers Kevin J. Anderson and Mike Resnick.

The book was inspired by the X Prize Foundation’s current robotics competition called the Avatar X Prize. For the prize, global teams are competing to build the world’s first robots that can be operated by a human at-a-distance — to solve big problems for humanity. In the world of automation, an “avatar” is a human-styled robot that has a mechanical body with senses, limbs, tools, and mobility.

You can think of it like a mechanical surrogate you can operate from far away. It gives you: sight, sound, touch, grip — anywhere you send your avatar. Sitting at home, you could take your avatar out on the town — to walk around, see a movie, and go shopping.

For the Avatar X Prize, teams of robotics engineers have to design an avatar that can do sophisticated tasks at-a-distance. They test the robot on serious challenges to see who wins. The goal of the prize is to build real robots that could travel internationally — helping people and animals in need.

A remote controlled robot is a strong tele-presence. The avatar’s skilled human operator can be “virtually” deployed into high risk situations that need heroic levels of capability, without going in-person. The human operator can navigate their robot from a distance by locking-in to remote control equipment.  These kinds of avatar robots aren’t just for sight-seeing. The robotic surrogates are outfitted with advanced and powerful tools. Equipped for life-saving procedures like evacuation, excavation, surgery, wound care, bomb detection, search + rescue, and heavy lifting.

By stepping into the robotic suit remotely, the avatar can become your super-human extension.  For example: rescue robots or under-sea explorer robots could venture into places we can’t actually take our biological bodies. Ray Kurzweil explains that avatar robots can augment our strength, dexterity, senses, critical thinking, decision making, and also our experiences.

The avatar robot can safely enter: burning buildings, battle zones, disaster areas, wild outbacks, and broken-down urban environments harboring dangerous physical obstacles.

Meanwhile, the human controller — who might be a first-responder, medic, technician, teacher, astronaut, archeologist, scientist, care-giver, fire-fighter, explorer, therapist — can maintain a stable distance without getting in trouble. The human can stay completely focused on mission critical tasks at-hand.

Also, more than one person can wear a robotic avatar suit. So more than one expert can operate at that remote location, without having to move crews of personnel. Especially in an emergency: time, distance, and terrain are key.

In his foreword to Avatar Dreams, Ray Kurzweil takes us on a tour of current, impressive tech prototypes that promise to make a full-function robot avatar a reality, in just a few years. According to futurists who watch automation trends: our civilization will be deeply intertwined with avatars that can extend our reach, enhance our senses, and also let us experiment with expressing our personality in novel ways.

Ray Kurzweil explains that stepping into an avatar gives you the freedom to be anyone or anything you dream. Avatar Dreams is a colorful collection of fictional stories exploring the future. Have fun on your reading journey!

managing editor


book title: Avatar Dreams
book deck: Sci-Fi stories showcasing the coming age of avatars.

anthology editor: Kevin J. Anderson
anthology editor: Mike Resnick
science editor: Harry Kloor PhD
year: 2018

foreword: by Ray Kurzweil
introduction: by Harry Kloor PhD


Avatar Dreams | book foreword —

I Am an Avatar
by Ray Kurzweil

“I was smitten. I never wanted to leave this world, one more beautiful than I could have imagined,” recalled a woman who recently had her first full immersion experience in October 2016 in a multi-player virtual reality world called QuiVr. “Virtual reality had won me over lock, stock and barrel,” she continued.

Her epiphany was short-lived as the virtual hand of another player named “BigBro442″ started to rub her virtual chest. “Stop!” she cried. But his assault continued and intensified. “My high from earlier plummeted,” she wrote. “I went from the god who couldn’t fall off a ledge — to a powerless woman being chased by another avatar.”

Finally, after being chased and harassed around the virtual cliffs and ledges of the QuiVr world, she yanked off her headset. I had several reactions to reading about this incident. First, dismay at the pervasive misogyny and harassment directed at women, which is intensified in the anonymity of many virtual environments and other forms of online communication.

The other reaction is especially relevant to this book. I have written that virtual environments are inherently safer than real ones because you can hang-up if the experience is not going to your liking. She did ultimately leave the QuiVr world — but a week later she wrote: “It felt real and violating. The virtual chasing and groping happened a full week ago. I’m still thinking about it.”

video | highlights from video game QuiVr
developer: BlueTeak co.
publisher: Alvios co.

Putting aside for the moment the important issue of harassment and assault, in both real and virtual spaces, this incident illustrates a key lesson about the increasingly virtual world we will be inhabiting — we easily transfer our consciousness to our avatar.

Like a child playing with a doll, we maintain some level of awareness that the virtual world is slightly more tentative than the real one, but we have little resistance to identifying with our virtual selves. I’ve always felt that the term “virtual reality” is unfortunate, implying a lack of reality. The telephone was the first virtual reality — we can be in a virtual space with someone far away, as if we’re together. But these are still real interactions. You can’t say about a phone conversation: “oh, that argument we had,” “that agreement we made,” “that love I expressed” — that wasn’t real, it was just virtual reality.

video | what are virtual + augmented realities
publication: ColdFusion

video | welcome to augmented reality city
from: Blippar co.

We have decades of experience with avatars representing us in virtual environments — and these are becoming immersive with 360 degree, 3D virtual environments. More significant, is we’re now embarking on an era in which avatars will also represent us in real reality. That’s the topic of Avatar Dreams — this compelling and creative collection of stories compiled by writers Kevin J. Anderson and Mike Resnick.

A major issue concerning avatars in the real world is the phenomenon of the uncanny valley, which is the sense of revulsion that occurs if a replica of a human — whether a computer-generated image or a robot — is very close to lifelike, but not quite there. Thus far, we have largely stayed on the safe bank of this valley.

video | what is the uncanny valley
publication: Seeker

In the movies, computer generated characters such as Shrek are obviously not trying to look human. This is beginning to change. In the 2016 Star Wars series film called Rogue One: a Star Wars story —- the fictional character Grand Moff Tarkin (Imperial leader of the Death Star) was computer animated. That was because of the death in 1994 of actor Peter Cushing, who portrayed the character in vintage Star Wars films.

video | highlights of Shrek + friends
studio: DreamWorks Animation co.

video | character Grand Moff Tarking: real actor vs. animated
studio: LucasFilm co.
publication: Behind Star Wars

For me, he was in the uncanny valley and looked creepy, but not everyone agreed. Many critics applauded how realistic he appeared. Hence, we’re approaching the safe bank of the uncanny valley when it comes to animations. There will always be controversy as we get close to full realism.

However, when it comes to robotic avatars in the real world, we’re not yet approaching the uncanny valley. I’ve given multiple public talks using a technology called the Beam tele-presence robot, which is a simple human-sized device consisting of a wheeled base holding a display of a person’s face at a normal face height.

video | Beam tele-presence robot
from: Suitable Technologies co.

As a user, I can roll on stage after I’m introduced and give my talk, and then mingle with the audience after. There are significant limitations: I’m always afraid I’m going to zoom off the stage because I can’t see where my virtual bottom is. When mingling, I can’t shake hands, I can’t give + receive hugs. But I do feel like I’m at the venue, and am able to put these restrictions temporarily out-of-mind.

Over the next 5 to 10 years all of these limitations of robotic avatars will gradually dissolve, just as fully virtual environments have gone from the simple worlds of Atari branded 8-bit games — to today’s compelling 3D virtual environments However, we still need to be wary of the uncanny valley.

I describe one way to leap over the uncanny valley in an issued patent titled “virtual encounters” that helps you to hug and physically interact with a companion in real reality — even if you’re 100s of miles apart.

US Patent + Trade Office | patent: no. 8.600.550
patent title: virtual encounters
inventor: Ray Kurzweil

If a 3rd person witnesses such an interaction, they’d see each person with a robotic surrogate. However, for the participants, they never actually see the robot they’re with. Instead, they experience their human partner.

To envision this, let’s call the 2 people: John and Jane. John sees out of the eyes of his robotic surrogate with Jane. And similarly, Jane sees out of the eyes of her surrogate with John. They hear out of the ears of their surrogates and feel (using tactile actuators: piezo-electric stimulators on their hands, arms, and other body parts) the physical sensations detected by the physical sensors on the surrogates. The physical movements of the 2 human participants direct the movements of the corresponding robotic surrogate.

So each party feels like they’re with their human partner and does not see or detect the presence of any robots. Given our readiness to transfer our consciousness to avatars that represent us in another environment, both parties feel like they’re truly with their human partner. Once perfected, it would be just like being together. The 2 robotic surrogates are simply a communication channel incorporating all of the senses. This concept can be extended to more than 2 participants.

The scenario described in this patent is one approach to being somewhere else using avatar technology. Another approach is to transfer ourselves to remote robotic substitutes that will appear real to other real people in a real environment. Through accelerating advances in: robotics, sensory biology, communication, and virtual reality technologies — we’ll be able to instantly exist in multiple places at once, and overcome limitations of today’s state of the art.

The latest X Prize, called the Avatar X Prize envisions “limitless travel by teleporting a person’s awareness to a robotic avatar body that will enable people to be in multiple places at once.” I worked on this prize with Harry Kloor PhD who led the effort.

The technologies to realize this vision are rapidly coming into place. Start with today’s Beam robot and replace each of its components with technologies that are already coming into place. For example, replace its wheeled base with walking legs, a capability that Boston Dynamics and a number of teams have already demonstrated.

Robotic walking legs by Boston Dynamics co. —

Now add robotic arms that you control with your own arms, another already available technology demonstrated, for example, by Dean Kamen’s “Luke Arm,” which is intended as a prosthetic for amputees. This technology has already received FDA approval based on its ability to allow users without biological arms to “prepare food, feed oneself, use zippers, and brush and comb their hair.”

— Fred Downs using a prototype of the Luke arm project by DEKA Research + Development co. —

Replacing the avatar’s head with something realistic is the most challenging aspect of the Avatar X Prize. But consider this robotic head created by communications and biotechnology pioneer Martine Rothblatt Phd — in collaboration with Hanson Robotics ltd. — called Bina-48 based on Martine’s wife Bina Rothblatt.

The Bina-48 robot is able to respond to questions using its own AI, but it could also be used to project the presence of an actual human.

Hanson Robotics | home
Hanson Robotics | robot gallery
Hanson Robotics | Bina-48


image | below
Bina-48 robot by Hanson Robotics ltd.


image | below
Bina-48 robot by Hanson Robotics ltd.


In 5 to 10 years, these types of technologies will be perfected and seamlessly integrated into an avatar technology that will enable us to do virtually all of the things we do now by traveling to a different location. They will be designed to look and feel human. We will then be able to prepare and serve a meal, subsequently clean up the table, mingle with guests, hug and kiss a friend, perform rescues, conduct surgeries, engage in sports competitions, and do a myriad of other tasks just as if we were there.

And as a result of the 50 percent deflation rate inherent in all information technologies, this capability will ultimately be inexpensive and ubiquitous. Consider that your smartphone is literally a trillion dollars of computation and communication, circa 1965, yet it costs only a few hundred dollars today and there are now two billion of them in the world.

The stories in this outstanding and highly imaginative volume bring these diverse scenarios to life. In author Kevin Anderson’s short story: “The Next Best Thing to Being There” — a robotic sherpa guides climbers on Mount Rainier, which illustrates one important application of robotic avatar technology, which is bringing remote expertise to challenging environments. Francesca — the wife of one of the climbers — is experiencing the climb virtually through the sherpa avatar and shares the shock of the actual participants when an avalanche suddenly strikes. As the ensuing crisis develops, the avatar takes on a different role, which is as a remote physician attending to the injured climbers, and directed by doctors far away.

We already see doctors performing virtual surgery using avatar technology. For example, a human doctor remotely doing eye surgery by entering a virtual environment in which the patient’s eye becomes as big as a beach ball, thereby enabling the intricate surgical maneuvers required. Surgeries can now be performed by doctors who may be thousands of miles away, allowing medical expertise to be instantly transported to remote areas where medical services are scant.

In author Tina Gower’s story: “The Waiting Room” — a woman whose physical body has failed her is able to explore the world and seek a relationship with her children by using an avatar that represents her in a physical reality that she would otherwise not be able to navigate with her physical body. Not only does the protagonist of the story successfully transfer her consciousness to her avatar, but we the reader do so as well. We readily accept her avatar as being the heroine. The story brings up the issue of what we should do with our physical bodies as we spend more and more of our time in the future inhabiting avatars in both virtual and real reality.

This is where we are headed: a future that integrates real spaces with virtual and augmented realities, and a world in which I can effortlessly transfer my consciousness and experiences to an avatar that represents me. This will ultimately be so realistic that I will find myself reminding my friends and colleagues that I am an avatar.


https://www.xprize.org/ana


on the web | background

X Prize Foundation | home
X Prize Foundation | science fiction advisory board
X Prize Foundation | prizes: complete collection
X Prize Foundation | prizes: the Avatar X Prize

Wikipedia | X Prize Foundation: history
Wikipedia | X Prize Foundation: list of X Prizes

 


— background reading | no. 1 —

about avatars | Avatars are at the leading edge of robotics and digital innovation. An avatar is either a mechanical robot standing-in for a human, or a digital person living in non-physical places — for example, on the web. In the near future: people will have fulfilling experiences living a lifestyle through a remote surrogate — like their personal digital avatar.

An avatar can change to reflect your new style, new adventures, and new curiosity. The web is already filled with digital worlds inhabited by avatars who experience life’s senses in creative ways. These avatars will grow to develop a full complement of human body senses. Future avatars will be able to transmit touch, sound, sight, taste, smell. Avatars can engage the world: do chores, have relationships, go shopping, find information, and travel to both real and fantasy places. In virtual spaces, people can bring their imagination to life.


— background  reading | no. 2 —

about X Prize Foundation | The X Prize Foundation designs + manages public competitions to foster tech development for world benefit. The mission is to create breakthroughs for humanity with challenges that award million dollar prize purses to the winner. It crafts competitions across fields: for individuals, companies, organizations to innovative ideas and tech to solve the biggest world problems. The motto of the X Prize Foundation is: Let’s move progress forward.


— background reading | no. 3 —

about the Avatar X Prize | Bridging distance, time and culture. The $10 million Avatar X Prize — presented by All Nippon Airways — is a 4 year competition to speed the integration of tech into a multi-purpose avatar system. The robotic avatar will seamlessly transport human skills and experience — to the exact location where and when they’re needed.

Designing avatars for impact — avatars can take different forms and be used in a variety of scenarios. For example:

  • giving care: avatars can give the sensory experience of your presence + care to anyone instantly, no matter the distance.
  • disaster relief: avatars can transport life-saving skills in real time to remote locations too dangerous for people to go.
  • multi-purpose utility: experts can use avatars to provide services + rare trade skills for critical maintenance or repairs.

The prize winning solution must enable a person to: see, hear, touch, interact. The winning team will demo a robotic avatar, used by an non-trained operator: to complete a set of simple + complex tasks, in a physical environment at least 100 km away.


— background reading | no. 4 —

about the book | The book Avatar Dreams: science fiction visions of avatar technology explores the current and future impact of avatars. The X Prize Foundation crafted the Avatar X Prize to foster the engineering innovation we need to make general purpose avatars an everyday reality. Development of avatar tech — the blend of human awareness with remote robotic or digital bodies — tracks advances in medicine, culture, work, transportation, education, and design. The book is inspired by the Avatar X Prize and the exciting robots the prize will demo.

The potential of avatars is endless — in the book, today’s most insightful science fiction writers illustrate the possibilities in 14 stories.

imagine:

— a group of remote spectators traveling along remotely during a rigorous mountain climbing expedition.
— a severely injured athlete able to play his favorite sport vicariously through a robotic body.
— a comatose woman using an avatar to interact with her family and the outside world.
— a skilled technician using an avatar on a dangerous search + rescue operation.
— medical specialists using avatars to enter infectious disease hot zones that no vulnerable human can.

These 14 short tales by premier science fiction authors explore the future wonders of avatar tech.

— the short stories  —

  1. The Next Best Thing to Being There — by Kevin J. Anderson
  2. Coach — by Mike Resnick
  3. The Waiting Room — by Tina Gower
  4. That Others May Live — by Ken Ikenberry
  5. The Ghost of the Mountain — by Andrea G. Stewart
  6. Action Figures — by Martin L. Shoemaker
  7. Covering the Games — by Ron Collins
  8. Avatar Syndrome — by Harry Doc Kloor
  9. The Gathering — by Kay Kenyon
  10. Delivering the Payload — by Josh Vogt
  11. Stedman Farrah’s Illustrious Fall — by Marina J. Lostetter
  12. Old Dogs, New Tricks — by Brad R. Torgersen
  13. Little and Small — by Todd J. McCaffrey
  14. In the Heart of the Action — by Jody Lynn Nye

on the web | learning

Wikipedia | avatar
Wikipedia | tele-robotics
Wikipedia | android
Wikipedia | humanoid robot


— notes —

DEKA Research + Development co. | home

* DEKA is Dean Kamen PhD Research + Development co.


— notes —


[ story file ]

story title:
deck:
year: 2018
posted: by managing editor
section: the blog