DARPA Wants to Give Soldiers Robot Surrogates, Avatar Style

In the movie Avatar, humans hooked themselves up to brain-machine-interface pods with which they could control giant genetically engineered human-alien hybrids. It’s just a movie, but DARPA, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, doesn’t care: It wants this kind of system to be real, just replace “giant genetically engineered human-alien hybrids” with “robots.”

In its 2013 budget, DARPA has decided to pour US $7 million into the “Avatar Project,” whose goal is the following: “develop interfaces and algorithms to enable a soldier to effectively partner with a semi-autonomous bi-pedal machine and allow it to act as the soldier’s surrogate.”

That word “surrogate” implies something more than just telepresence, and indeed DARPA does specify that it is looking for “key advancements in telepresence and remote operation of a ground system.” But we’re perfectly free to speculate on what those “key advancements” are, which again comes back to “surrogate.” To me, the implication is that there’s going to be some technology that effectively puts the user “inside” the remote system, whether it’s through immersive VR or exoskeleton or some sort of direct brain control. Either of these things is a realistic possibility, especially if DARPA’s tossing a couple million at the problem.

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