TECHNOLOGY

XPrize’s Next Moonshot Competition? Turning Yourself Into a Robot

The winner will take home a $10 million prize.

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BY Kevin J. Ryan - 12 Mar 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

If you can't beat the robots, become one.

XPrize, the organization founded by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis and meant to encourage moonshot projects, is announcing its next competition at South by Southwest in Austin: The search is on for a company that can create a real-world avatar. The theoretical system would let a person see, hear, and touch through a robotic device from up to 100 km away.

It might sound far-fetched, but there's plenty of incentive to give it a go--the winner will collect a cool $10 million.

Diamandis sees such a system as being helpful in disaster relief efforts, when sending in human rescue teams might be too risky.

"If you remember the Fukushima nuclear reaction in Japan [in 2011], no one could get in there to turn the appropriate knobs to shut down the meltdown," he says. "With an avatar, we could put an untrained user who knows that facility into that robot, and they could go and manipulate the panels and so forth."

Beyond those high-pressure scenarios, Diamandis thinks avatars could have practical uses in everyday life. He envisions a world in which people have avatar systems sitting around in their closets, waiting for a doctor or cable company to come in and perform a house call or fix your WiFi. "It takes minutes instead of hours," he says. "It's the ultimate house call."

Diamandis is officially announcing the start of the competition in a presentation at SXSW in Austin Monday. As of now, the contest is slated to last for four years, though deadlines for previous XPrizes have been pushed back in the past.

The competition's award is sponsored by Japan-based All Nippon Airways. Diamandis says the airline approached XPrize with the goal of finding the technology that could upend its industry in the future. "They came to us and said, 'Instead of being subject to disruption, how do we anticipate that disruption and lead it?' " he says. The entrepreneur sees such a system as someday serving as a proxy for actual human experiences. "Imagine a future," he says, "where instead of loading your body--I'll call it your 'meat body'--onto an airplane and flying it for 18 hours across the planet, you could Uber your senses into a robot and see through its eyes, hear through its ears, feel through its hands, manipulate the world around you, and effectively occupy that robot."

The first XPrize competition, which ran from 1996 and 2004, offered a $10 million prize to whoever could successfully launch a reusable spacecraft into space twice within a two-week span. Inspired by the competition that eventually led to Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight, Diamandis launched the contest with the goal of jumpstarting the commercial space industry. California-based Mojave Aerospace Ventures won that prize and eventually signed a deal with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. Branson said late last year that he expects that company to take up its first passengers sometime in 2018.

The most recent competition, to land a module on the moon and have it travel 500 meters and transmit video back to Earth, ended without a winner after 10 years. Google sponsored that contest and its $30 million in prizes. Originally planned as a five-year competition, the deadline shifted a number of times before being called off in January.

"It became a fundraising competition in part," Diamandis says. "To enter the game and play you had to have raised 30, 40, 50 million dollars of capital, and it just took a long time for teams to do that." Still, he doesn't call it a failure, since a number of teams are close to launching. Plus, he adds, "if every prize we announced got won, then clearly we're not pushing the envelope hard enough."

Anyone can apply for the current competition, though entrants will have to demonstrate serious intent by way of a documented game plan. The competition will have several checkpoints, after which only those teams that have made a certain degree of progress will be eligible to keep going.

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