Humanity’s next challenge? Creating IRL avatars (Yes, really)

One day in the not-so-distant future, search and rescue workers could rush into disaster areas not on foot or in traditional rescue vehicles, but via a robotic avatar.

At least, that’s the vision behind the latest XPrize, which today announced a new competition that will award $10 million to the first team who’s able to create a functional robotic avatar by 2021.

XPrize is still hammering out the exact rules and requirements of what this will entail, but the basics are this: it has to be operational from at least 100 km away and user-friendly enough that avatars can be controlled without any specialized training.

To do so, teams will need to use a number of different types of technologies: virtual reality, haptics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. (Xprize is also soliciting expert opinions for more feedback on their plans.)

It’s an ambitious goal, but one XPrize CEO Peter Diamandis believes is possible sooner, rather than later, thanks to advancements in the underlying technology necessary to enable such a creation.

“We’re always looking for the right moment in time that would accelerate the technology and form enough teams together and really cause the seeding of these new companies,” Diamandis says.

Early applications of the technology could be used for medical professionals or search and rescue workers, but could also be used for travel and other consumer industries. (The prize’s sponsor is Japanese airliner ANA, of all companies.)

It’s not the first time XPrize has launched a competition that sounds more like science fiction than reality. The company previously held competitions to bring a private spacecraft to the moon (all of the teams failed) and to create a real-life version of Star Trek’s tricorder (which had a winner, though there’s still a ways to go before we see a consumer version).

But Diamandis believes avatars are not only possible, but that as an industry they have “the potential to be as big, or bigger than companies like Uber.”

“I believe that this is an incredibly opportunity for humanity to connect experts anywhere with a physical need any place, to look at this de-centralization between expertise and immediate need. “

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