At last CES, the South Korean company Hyundai wanted to impress with the concept of metamobility, that is, the fact of performing tasks remotely in the real world through the meta-verse. A technology that is not ready to be democratized among individuals. Explanations.
In France, the CNRS Pprime Institute, affiliated with the Faculty of Poitiers, has a robotics laboratory that has been working for several years to manipulate machines remotely (telecommunications) thanks to virtual reality and digital twins. We visited it.
Metamobility, a term used by Hyundai, is a form of telecommunications operation. It’s about using virtual reality and the meta-verse to perform tasks that will be replicated externally in the real world. For example, the PPrime Institute managed to model a machine and take control of it from the other end of the building. Researchers use digital twins for this: “It is a virtual copy of a physical environment that is physically realistic, ie. it can reproduce the behavior of a robot or a production line. Then we can move there and do tests », explains Célestin Préault, engineer and post-doc researcher at the department. As these examples show, this type of technology is primarily designed for industry: before setting up a factory, companies can request the creation of a digital twin to explore it in virtual reality.
Pedagogical use is also being investigated: The use of a digital twin by a laboratory environment makes it 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 dangerous substances, such as sulfuric acid, which requires a lot of preparation and control. We had very good feedback from the teachers because after doing the experiment on a digital twin, the students were less anxious when they had to do the experiment in real life. »
Metamobility is also considered for exploring places that are hostile to humans. Hyundai had raised the possibility in the future of sending robots into space instead of astronauts. Kathleen Belhassein, a psychologist who specializes in human-robot interaction, believes that it is not so different from the relationship that NASA pilots already have with rovers such as Curiosity and Persistence : “These people must 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, no project related to space exploration, but a prototype robot hand designed for fine motor skills. Its goal: to enable underwater archeology to be made at depths that are impossible for humans to reach.
During its presentation, Hyundai had gone even further with the use of metamobility even in our home: being on vacation and, thanks to the metaverse and the use of a robot avatar, feeding and petting its dog that stayed at home. We are still a long way from that, to the point that Kathleen Belhassein and Célestin Préault can not provide a time scale for the democratization of this type of technology. “I hope we’ll still be alive to see it!” responds Kathleen Belhassein. There is still a lot of work, especially at the ethical level, to do around this. » Célestin Préault also temper: “You have to remember that for virtual reality, it started in the mid-1990s for materials research, and it’s only breaking through now …” Metamobility is actually a very new research topic that emerged about five years ago, so it will probably take decades to see it evolve. Especially since there are many blockages.
Why is it not right away?
The first obstacle is, of course, technical. In industry, robots are usually in cages to avoid accidents, they are not made to share the same space as a human and cooperate directly. Even if it is remotely controlled by a human, a robot will move around 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 working together.
The economic aspect is also at the heart of the problem. Researchers will certainly get more funding thanks to the growing interest of large companies in the meta-verse, but this type 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 laboratory costs even tens of thousands of euros. This type of investment may be possible for large companies, but not for the majority of individuals.
The legal and ethical side also raises questions, especially in the event of a mistake or accident: who will be 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. Last month, for example, the British and Scottish Law Commission recommended that the manufacturer be held liable if a self-driving vehicle is involved in an accident. By performing actions at a distance, for example in the metaverse, individual responsibility is also perceived differently, which raises ethical questions: “We are already seeing this with the military and drones, explains Kathleen Belhassein. We tend to think that their responsibility is not so high because there is a screen between man and action. It’s “pure warfare”: the soldier kills, but he is not really aware of it. That’s not true at all, it’s even worse for him because he knows he’s been killed, but he’s been deprived of social ties and the ability to empathize. These soldiers have traumas that are completely invisible. »
Finally, there is a psychological blockage, especially for individuals. “There is the question of whether the machine is acceptable to 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 very much like humans, and in the West we will not accept that. There is some mistrust and fear around this. »
To overcome these various obstacles, the researcher emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinarity: “Why are we now starting to get humanities and social sciences that fit into these areas of engineering and robotics? It’s to set boundaries. It is normal that scientists and engineers always want to go further. This is where interdisciplinarity and dialogue with experts in psychology, ergonomics or philosophy is important. We come to bring our knowledge of the human spirit to prevent biases and excesses. »