be everywhere at once thanks to the metaverse

At the last CES, the South Korean company Hyundai wanted to impress with the concept of metamobility, that is, the fact of remotely performing tasks in the real world through the metaverse. A technology that is not ready to be democratized among individuals. explanation.

In France, the CNRS PPrime Institute, affiliated with the Faculty of Sciences of Poitiers, has a robotics laboratory that has been working for several years on the manipulation of machines at a distance (teleoperation) thanks to virtual reality and digital twins. We have visited it.

Metamobility, a term Hyundai uses, is a form of teleoperation. It’s about using virtual reality and the metaverse to perform tasks that will be replicated remotely in the real world. For example, the PPrime Institute managed to model a machine and take control from the other side of the building. Scientists use digital twins for this: “It is a virtual copy of a physical environment that is physically realistic, ie can reproduce the behavior of a robot or a production line. We can then move there and do tests », explains Célestin Préault, engineer and postdoctoral researcher at the institute. As these examples show, this type of technology is mainly designed for industry: before setting up a factory, companies can request the creation of a digital twin to explore it in virtual reality.

The person sees the machine in virtual reality and can operate it remotely.

The pedagogical use is also investigated: by using a digital twin of a laboratory environment it is possible to train students in devices that they do not have in the classroom or to have more students. Célestin Préault gives the example of chemistry students: “They had to do an experiment with hazardous substances, such as sulfuric acid, which require a lot of preparation and control. We received very good feedback from the teachers, because after the experiment on digital twins, the students were less afraid when they had to do the experiment in real life. †

Metamobility is also being considered for exploring places hostile to humans. Hyundai had suggested the possibility of sending robots into space instead of astronauts in the future. Kathleen Belhassein, a psychology researcher specializing in human-robot interaction, believes it’s not much different from the relationship NASA pilots already have with rovers like Curiosity and Perseverance“These people have to learn to ‘be’ the rover, ie imagine how it can move and visualize the location of cameras, solar panels and sensors. † At the PPrime Institute not a project related to space exploration, but a prototype robotic hand designed for fine motor skills. The goal: to enable underwater archeology at depths inaccessible to humans.

Lors de sa présentation, Hyundai était allé encore plus loin avec une utilization de la métamobilité jusque dans nos foyers : être en vacances et, grâce au metaverse et à l’utilization d’un robot-avatar, nourrir et restser la son chien House. We’re a long way from there, to the point where Kathleen Belhassein and Célestin Préault can’t provide a timeline for democratizing this kind of technology. “I hope we’re still alive to see it!” responds Kathleen Belhassein. There is still a lot of work to be done, especially on an ethical level. † Celestin Preault also tempers: “You have to remember that for virtual reality it started in the mid-1990s for materials research and is only now breaking through…” Metamobility is indeed a very recent research topic, popping up about five years ago, so it will likely take decades to develop. Especially because there are many blockages.

Why isn’t that right away?

The first hurdle is, of course, technical. In industry, robots are usually caged to avoid accidents, they are not made to share the same space as a human and work together directly. Even if a robot is remotely controlled by a human, a robot will move and have a different “body language” than humans, which can make it difficult for humans and robots to understand each other and thus their ability to collaborate on tasks. . Currently, it is more efficient to have either a robot production line or people work together.

The financial aspect is also at the heart of the problem. Researchers will certainly get more money thanks to the growing interest of big companies in the metaverse, but this kind of technology will remain expensive for individuals. The humanoid robots that exist today cost several thousand euros and one of the haptic joysticks (which reproduce the sense of touch) from the PPrime lab even costs several tens of thousands of euros. This type of investment may be possible for large companies, but not for most individuals.

The legal and ethical side also raises questions, especially in the event of an error or accident: who is responsible? The user ? The robot manufacturer? The people who created the digital twin? This type of problem is not new as it is already being considered for autonomous vehicles. For example, last month the UK and Scottish Law Commission recommended that the manufacturer be held liable if an autonomous vehicle is involved in an accident. By taking actions remotely, for example in the metaverse, individual responsibility is also experienced differently, which raises ethical questions: “We are already seeing this in the military and drones, explains Kathleen Belhassein. We tend to think that their responsibility is not so great because there is a screen between the human and the action. It’s clean warfare: the soldier kills, but he doesn’t really realize it. It’s not true at all, it’s even worse for him because he knows he’s been murdered, but he’s bereft of social ties and the ability to empathize. These soldiers have traumas that are completely invisible. †

Finally, there is a psychological block, especially for individuals. “There’s the issue of the machine’s acceptability for us and the loss of social ties. We also create other problems afterwards, warns Kathleen Belhassein. Especially in the West. In Asian cultures, robots are seen differently, they like them. For individuals, service robots will look a lot like humans and in the West we will not accept it. There is a certain distrust and fear surrounding this. †

To overcome these various obstacles, the researcher emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinarity: “Why are we now starting to have humanities and social sciences that fit into these areas of engineering and robotics? It’s to set boundaries. It is normal that researchers and engineers always want to go further. Here interdisciplinarity and dialogue with experts in psychology, ergonomics or philosophy is important. We come to bring our knowledge of the human mind, to avoid prejudice and excesses. †

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