Avatars for aid?

A robot at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by: Paul Hudson / CC BY

AUSTIN, Texas — Emerging technologies from wearables to drones are on their way to transforming humanitarian response. But what about avatars, remotely controlled robots that can transport the senses of operators somewhere far from where they are based? Some say they could bring skills to disaster zones too dangerous for responders to enter.

The XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that puts on public competitions for the development of technology to benefit humanity, announced the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE on Monday at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Sponsored by a Japanese airline, the four-year competition aims to accelerate the development of technologies that will bring human skills to the locations where they are needed. Devex spoke with representatives of XPRIZE and others about the impact humanoids might have in poor countries, and how the international development community might engage.

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“I think the avatar challenge is something the global development community must pay attention to,” said Zenia Tata, vice president for global impact at XPRIZE, whose team works to develop breakthrough solutions that later become the basis of competitions.

The idea with avatars is that untrained operators can interact with — see, hear and touch — a physical environment that is over 100 kilometers away from where they are operating the system, she explained.

“I think the avatar challenge is something the global development community must pay attention to.”

—  Zenia Tata, vice president for global impact at XPRIZE

“Now think about the applications in health, disaster relief, education, poverty alleviation,” she added.

Speaking with Devex hours before the onstage announcement by XPRIZE executive chairman Peter Diamandis, she talked about the potential impact for smallholder farmers. In remote areas with poor infrastructure, it can be a challenge to get farm extension agents to provide the kind of advice that can help poor farmers improve their yields, she explained. While the attempts to solve this problem range from voice or SMS services on feature phones to data from space, a multipurpose avatar system would allow for experts in faraway locations to lend their expertise.

“We talk about going to Mars, but still today on our planet, there are [800 women] who die in childbirth [each day],” she said, presenting yet another potential use case for the technology, building on the contributions of advancements like mobile health and wearable technology to improve health care not only in developing countries but also in last mile health care.

Devex has reported on the rise of competitions as a means of innovation in the development space, including the Global Learning XPRIZE, a $15 million competition financed by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who spoke at SXSW not only about his work to get humans to Mars, but also about his work closer to home, on issues such as battery storage innovation and global internet access. One of the main aims of the XPRIZE model is to democratize innovation, Tata said. She mentioned for example how 100 teams from 30 countries applied for the Water Abundance XPRIZE, sponsored by the Tata Group and the innovationXchange at Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

On Monday, Diamandis took to the stage, making the case for the theory of abundance rather than of scarcity, and talking about the potential avatars have to bridge the gap between distance, time, and culture.

“It’s not about about avatars replacing humans and their skills,” he said. “It is about increasing the sphere and influence of humans across the planet.”

Diamandis talked about disaster relief as the most important application of the technology, so Devex asked what he sees as the role of aid organizations in the avatar XPRIZE.

“I think that those organizations should be our first users,” he said. “Before the prize is won, in the years leading up to it, we should have deals with all the humanitarian organizations and all the disaster relief organizations that they’re going to use the avatars coming out of this in the field to demonstrate how it can be used to change what is possible.”

That response puts the global development community in the position of being a customer rather than a creator, said Karen McCabe, senior director for technology policy and international affairs at IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a professional association that organizes a “Tech for Humanity” track of programming at SXSW.

One of those sessions was Algorithms, Unconscious Bias, and AI. In a world where tech leaders are primarily white males, there is growing concern about the lack of representation in tech tools — an issue that came up time and again at SXSW. In order to recognize this bias and make technology development more inclusive, there is a need to focus not only on gender and race, but also on making sure that technology comes from both developed and developing country contexts, McCabe said.

“We’re sitting here with a Western perspective thinking we know what’s best for other people,” she said. “You’re making a big assumption that what we’re developing they’ll use.”

McCabe said she hopes to see more perspectives from developing countries in technological development, on the design side not just the user side, adding that those perspectives do not need to come from technologists in order to add value to the process.

The XPRIZE model combines approaches including gamification and crowdsourcing, which it sees as a way to maximize its impact on the biggest challenges facing the planet. The global development community has also launched its own models of incentivized prize competitions, such as the coalition of donors that have come together to support the Grand Challenges for Development. Organizations that are already bringing emerging technology to the challenges of disaster response and last mile health care have unique insights into what does and does not work in those markets, as well as the continued importance of local capacity building.

“As web accessibility continues to increase in these developing economies, more individuals will have access to information about their health, and more medical professionals will have access to up-to-date training materials,” said Priya Desai, director of strategic partnerships at Smile Train, an international organization that serves children in developing countries with untreated clefts.

Smile Train leverages technology, including a 3D simulation tool called the Virtual Surgery Simulator, to train medical professionals in developing countries to perform cleft palate surgeries. “What we're developing has the potential to be a blueprint for other surgeries,” Desai said. While she called the ambition of using robots to extend human expertise to the 69 countries where Smile Train works “high in the sky,” she added, “why not?” and said that organizations like hers “should be involved in these discussions.”

Avatars might be a stretch for procedures as complicated as cleft palate surgery, she said, but she could see applications in related areas where there is often a need for outside expertise, such as speech therapy.

The avatar XPRIZE is the first to be launched from a new process that XPRIZE calls “visioneering,” intended to make its prize design more impactful. Last year, the Visioneers Summit brought teams together for six months to work on XPRIZE competitions to impact grand challenges like democracy, clean air, and cybersecurity.

“Just because it’s a grand challenge and it needs something doesn’t necessarily mean an XPRIZE is the best way to take an approach to it,” Marcus Shingles, CEO of XPRIZE, told Devex. “Our visioneers process disqualifies concepts as much as it qualifies them.”

The visioneers process stands in contrast to other XPRIZE competitions, which in most cases have emerged from individuals or corporations who want to put some money behind a mission they care about.

For example, Anu and Naveen Jain, the founder of Moon Express, which is developing a robotic lunar lander to mine the moon, donated $1 million for a women’s safety XPRIZE. The goal, Anu Jain said in an interview with Devex, is to create a wearable technology that will enable communities, and particularly girls and women in India, to respond to threats. She explained how humans are wired to compete, and incentivized competitions tap into that natural desire to win, which can help philanthropists make their dollars go further.

While on the surface, the avatar competition may not seem to have great relevance to challenges such as the Sustainable Development Goals, XPRIZE aspires to have truly global impact with its competitions, Shingles said. Diamandis acknowledged that robotic technologies have a way to go before avatars can stand in for humans, laughing along with the audience at a video of robots falling down in a previous robotics challenge. He also noted infrastructure challenges, such as the need for high speed internet access, but said the idea is to adapt this technology so it can work across many communities.

“Imagine a village somewhere where ... you’re starting to get adopted technologies — refrigeration technology, technology that gets you WiFi access, technology that cleans your water,” he said. “As these technologies get adopted and spread out across the world, the avatar technician who can go service these technologies to keep them up and running is something we see as a possibility.”

Update, March 15: This story was updated to clarify the number of deaths in childbirth worldwide

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.