Are we entering a remote age? Exploring the potential of Cybernetic Avatars

Hello! This is Robert from the Moonshot PR team.

Today we bring you a special interview with Professor Norihiro Hagita, the Program Director for Moonshot Goal 1: "Realization of a society in which humans can be free from limitations of body, brain, space, and time by 2050."

To create a prosperous society of diverse lifestyles and values, all members must be able to participate actively in social life. Cybernetic Avatars (CA) and cloud infrastructure could support this by augmenting our physical, cognitive and perceptual capabilities and allow us to conduct social activities remotely. Individuals operating many avatars, and many individuals collaborating together in virtual/physical space could dramatically increase the range of human achievements and experiences.

Akihisa Hirose, science communicator from the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan), talked to Professor Hagita to find out more.

Norihiro Hagita
Chair and Professor, Art Science Department, Osaka University of Arts
Program Director of Moonshot Goal1 of the Moonshot R&D Project since 2020

Akihisa Hirose
Science communicator,The National Museum of Emerging Science Innovation

Augmenting physical and cognitive abilities and eliminating the concept of movement

Hirose: Goal 1 aims to create a society in which people are freed from various limitations. Why is this required?

Hagita: With the declining birth rate and aging population in Japan at present, there are concerns about an insufficient labor force. People responsible for nursing or childcare and the elderly have many restrictions, and it is difficult for them to move freely even if they are motivated. It is important to enable people with various backgrounds and values to participate in diverse activities in accordance with their own lifestyles. That is why we want to eliminate those limitations.

Hirose: The key to this is the CA, right? I am imagining the kind of world you see in movies and so on, but what kind of technology is it in reality?

Hagita: It is a concept that includes ICT and robotics technologies for augmenting the physical, cognitive, and perceptual capabilities of people. In simple terms, it is a robot that becomes your alter ego and lets you go wherever you want. You may be able to work in outer space while you are on Earth or use multiple CAs to manage multiple companies. Even people with disabilities should be able to use CAs to augment their abilities and be able to play sports.

Hirose: The development of various robotics technologies is already in progress, isn't it? What are the characteristics of these developments?

Hagita: CA is characterized not only by wearing goggles, gloves, and other wearable devices to augment physical and cognitive abilities but also by allowing people to share senses with others. I want people to experience the skills of professional baseball players pitching at 160 km/h and other incredible phenomena at their own pace.

I would also like to develop a CA that does not differentiate between cyber space and the real world. The number of online meetings has increased in recent times, but they do not allow you to whisper to one another during meetings. Therefore, we will develop a CA that behaves as if it is sitting next to you. That is, it will be as if you are right there in the same room.

Hirose: It seems that the concept of "movement" will disappear.

Hagita: There has been a sharp decline in the movement of people and an increase in goods being transported during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the introduction of the CA, I think that both the way people move and the way they use time will change drastically.

Technology for interpreting situations and movement is required for CA remote control

Hirose: What will be realized in the R&D phase of Goal 1?

Hagita: Broadly speaking, two types of things. The first is to create infrastructure where numerous CAs can be operated so that everyone can participate in a wide variety of social activities. The second is to enable anyone who wishes to live as a CA with augmented physical, cognitive, and perceptual capabilities.

Hirose: What are the technical challenges?

Hagita: Let's say you tried to operate multiple CAs, and a CA switches from remote operation to autonomous response through technology that "reads the situation" by not addressing people who seem to be busy. However, a technical issue would be how to share various parts of a CA with multiple remote operators when a single CA performs a single job.

Hirose: What is the project structure for advancing your R&D?

Hagita: I am working with three Project Managers (PMs). Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University is in charge of technology that can autonomously conduct hospitality-related and moral interactive behaviors by monitoring user responses. Prof. Kouta Minamizawa of Keio University is in charge of technology that creates new collective experiences by sharing the diverse skills and experiences of a wide range of people. Ryota Kanai, Director at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, researches technology that uses brain-machine interface (BMI), which interprets information from the brain to enable the CA to speak and behave as intended. Research and development for realizing technology is important, but the ethical, legal, social, and economic issues of using CA must also be considered.

Anticipating uses, examining challenges, and devising approaches to achieve stress-free use

Hirose: What kinds of social issues do you think will arise?

Hagita: Social media, for example, is a very convenient tool, but we are also witnessing things that we did not anticipate at the beginning of its development, such as people being driven to commit suicide due to online bullying. Researchers in law and ethics have participated in our project since the beginning of the study.

We are trying to objectively identify the behavioral changes and impacts on individuals and society that may arise from the various potential issues of the technology in the future. We intend to work with researchers from the fields of cognitive science, psychology, and economics, and so on.

Hirose: When you have more and more avatars, I feel it might become difficult to separate those from your private life.

Hagita: When the theater was born, the occupation of acting emerged. Just like actors play various roles such as doctors and detectives, we might get a new occupation like "avatar performer." I think it would be for people who are good at switching between emotional states. However, even professional actors need to switch between their persona as an actor and that at home, which can be stressful. I believe that we also need to conduct research on how to switch to and from our private life without stress.

Hirose: I think there will be some people who will not use the CA. I also think there will be situations when not using it will be disadvantageous.

Hagita: Since it is technology, each individual decides how to use it. I do not think the way our generation will use the CA, and the way today's youth will use it are the same. I would like each and every one to think about which CA to choose from among the ones that will exist and how to use them.

A "nostalgic satoyama" society composed of CAs that are artificial but still relaxing

Hirose: Since I was a teacher, I was also interested in the impact on education.

Hagita: I think a variety of things will become experience-based through interactions among people. We might see changes in history classes in that students will learn not through looking at chronological tables, but through historical figures, for example, by talking to an Oda Nobunaga CA.

In that case, cultivating imagination and logical thinking is important, isn't it?

Hirose: That's true. Experiencing the event should increase motivation.

Hagita: There are many other social activities that you will not understand unless you experience them. Anyone will be able to play soccer with a professional or create a large piece of art.

Hirose: What can the general public, including myself, do in anticipation of 2050?

Hagita: The changes do not stop with the development of the CA. It is important to create a system that allows everyone to use it and improve it. Take the "nostalgic satoyama*" as an example. It is an artificial landscape created by humans, but you are relaxed when you visit it. The most important thing is to make and use it considering balance with the global environment, natural environment, and society. As with the "nostalgic satoyama" village, CAs can create a society that is artificial but familiar to people and relaxing.

First published on Science Japan


Commentary by Program Director

Norihiro Hagita
Chair and Professor, Art Science Department, Osaka University of Arts

【Message from PD】
Our human-centered R&D projects on Cybernetic Avatars will support the creation of cloud infrastructure and core technologies that enable a diverse range of social activities via remote operation. We also intend Cybernetic Avatars to augment the physical, cognitive and perceptual capabilities of people from various social and value backgrounds.
Cybernetic Avatars will be developed from the viewpoint of both providers and users in future society. Therefore our R&D projects should also do basic research on human stress caused by them, and methods to relieve this stress, while taking into account ethical, legal, social, and economic (ELSE) issues and information security. I hope these projects will help us adapt and adjust to a new human-centered ‘Cybernetic Avatar Life’.