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Telepresence: A Manifesto

September 2, 2010 | Chris Payatagool
The legendary pioneer of artificial intelligence calls for a remote-controlled robot economy

robot_arm_telepresence.jpgBy Marvin Minsky via Spectrum

Mind and Machine: Marvin Minsky holds a 14-jointed, three-elbowed, computer-controlled, hydraulically muscled mechanical arm that he built at his MIT lab in the 1970s. This photo appeared in the article "Telepresence," republished here, in the June 1980 issue of Omni.

Over 30 years ago, MIT professor and artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky laid out an ambitious plan calling for the development of advanced teleoperated robotic systems that would usher in a "remote-controlled economy." He coined the term "telepresence" to describe these systems, which in his futuristic vision would transform work, manufacturing, energy production, medicine, and many other facets of modern life. His plan appeared as an essay in the June 1980 issue of the influential--and now defunct--science and science fiction magazine Omni. Today, despite the advances in computers and robotics, Minsky's manifesto remains as current and compelling as ever, a powerful call for a technology that could bring about huge societal benefits. IEEE Spectrum reproduces here his essay in full.

You don a comfortable jacket lined with sensors and musclelike motors. Each motion of your arm, hand, and fingers is reproduced at another place by mobile, mechanical hands. Light, dexterous, and strong, these hands have their own sensors through which you see and feel what is happening. Using this instrument, you can "work" in another room, in another city, in another country, or on another planet. Your remote presence possesses the strength of a giant or the delicacy of a surgeon. Heat or pain is translated into informative but tolerable sensation. Your dangerous job becomes safe and pleasant.

The crude robotic machines of today can do little of this. By building new kinds of versatile, remote controlled mechanical hands, however, we might solve critical problems of energy, health, productivity, and environmental quality, and we would create new industries. It might take 10 to 20 years and might cost $1 billion--less than the cost of a single urban tunnel or nuclear power reactor or the development of a new model of automobile.

To convey the idea of these remote control tools, scientists often use the words "teleoperators" or "telefactors." I prefer to call them "telepresences," a name suggested by my futurist friend Pat Gunkel. Telepresence emphasizes the importance of high quality sensory feedback and suggests future instruments that will feel and work so much like our own hands that we won't notice any significant difference.

Telepresence is not science fiction. We could have a remote controlled economy by the twenty first century if we start planning right now. The technical scope of such a project would be no greater than that of designing a new military aircraft.

A genuine telepresence system requires new ways to sense the various motions of a person's hands. This means new motors, sensors, and lightweight actuators. Prototypes will be complex, but as designs mature, much of that complexity will move from hardware to easily copied computer software. The first ten years of telepresence research will see the development of basic instruments: geometry, mechanics, sensors, effectors, and control theory and its human interface. During the second decade we will work to make the instruments rugged, reliable, and natural.

Nuclear Scare: In March 1979, a nuclear core at the Three Mile Island power plant in Dauphin County, Pa., suffered a partial meltdown, leaking radioactive gases and water in one of the most significant nuclear accidents ever to occur in the United States. The author contends that telepresence robots should be part of nuclear reactor design to help make repairs and, in case of accidents, to handle damage.

Three Mile Island really needed telepresence. I am appalled by the nuclear industry's inability to deal with the unexpected. We all saw the absurd inflexibility of present day technology in handling the damage and making repairs to that reactor. Technicians are still waiting to conduct a thorough inspection of the damaged plant--and to absorb a year's allowable dose of radiation in just a few minutes. The cost of repair and the energy losses will be $1 billion; telepresence might have cut this expense to a few million dollars.

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