23 September 2009—Imagine a world where you're stronger, younger, better looking, and don't age. Well, you do, but your robot surrogate—which you control with your mind from a recliner at home while it does your bidding in the world—doesn't.
It's a bit like The Matrix, but instead of a computer-generated avatar in a graphics-based illusion, in Surrogates—which opens Friday and stars Bruce Willis—you have a real titanium-and-fluid copy impersonating your flesh and blood and running around under your mental control. Other recent films have used similar concepts to ponder issues like outsourced virtual labor (Sleep Dealer) and incarceration (Gamer).
The real technology behind such fantastical fiction is grounded both in far-out research and practical robotics. So how far away is a world of mind-controlled personal automatons?
"We're getting there, but it will be quite a while before we have anything that looks like Bruce Willis," says Trevor Blackwell, the founder and CEO of Anybots, a robotics company in Mountain View, Calif., that builds "telepresence" robots controlled remotely like the ones in Surrogates.
Telepresence is action at a distance, or the projection of presence where you physically aren't. Technically, phoning in to your weekly staff meeting is a form of telepresence. So is joysticking a robot up to a suspected IED in Iraq so a soldier can investigate the scene while sitting in the (relative) safety of an armored vehicle.
Researchers are testing brain-machine interfaces on rats and monkeys that would let the animals directly control a robot, but so far the telepresence interfaces at work in the real world are physical. Through wireless Internet connections, video cameras, joysticks, and sometimes audio, humans move robots around at the office, in the operating room, underwater, on the battlefield, and on Mars.
A recent study by NextGen Research, a market research firm, projects that in the next five years, telepresence will become a significant feature of the US $1.16 billion personal robotics market, meaning robots for you or your home.
According to the study's project manager, Larry Fisher, telepresence "makes the most sense" for security and surveillance robots that would be used to check up on pets or family members from far away. Such robots could also allow health-care professionals to monitor elderly people taking medication at home to ensure the dosage and routine are correct.
Right now, most commercial teleoperated robots are just mobile webcams with speakers, according to NextGen. They can be programmed to roam a set path, or they can be controlled over the Internet by an operator. iRobot, the maker of the Roomba floor cleaner, canceled its telepresence robot, ConnectR, in January, choosing to wait until such a robot would be easier to use. But plenty of companies, such as Meccano/Erector and WowWee, are marketing personal telepresence bots.
Blackwell's Anybots, for example, has developed an office stand-in called QA. It's a Wi-Fi enabled, vaguely body-shaped wheeled robot with an ET-looking head that has cameras for eyes and a display in its chest that shows an image of the person it's standing in for. You can slap on virtual-reality goggles, sensor gloves, and a backpack of electronics to link to it over the Internet for an immersive telepresence experience. Or you can just connect to the robot through your laptop's browser.