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Fiction Science Club

Avatars return to the movies ⁠— and find a real-life foothold

Thirteen years after the original “Avatar” movie came out, the idea of human minds inhabiting alien bodies is returning for an amped-up sequel ⁠— and since 2009, real-life efforts to create robotic avatars have advanced at least as much as computer-aided filmmaking has.

Oscar-winning director James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” returns to Pandora, a far-off exomoon where the peaceful, blue-skinned Na’vi people are menaced by human invaders who are capable of getting into their skin. The film is a visual mind-blower, combining elements of underwater documentaries, video games and the movie that earned Cameron his Oscar: “Titanic.”

The idea of a human taking charge of an alien body via virtual reality is pure science fiction — but if you replace the fictional Na’vi with a robot, you get the premise for the ANA Avatar XPRIZE, which gave out its top awards at the $10 million competition’s finals in November.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, we focus on the parallels between the science-fiction vision embodied in the Avatar movies and the future-tech vision that roboticists are pursuing through the Avatar XPRIZE and other efforts. Someday, robotic avatars could well transform space exploration as well as life back here on Earth.

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Cosmic Tech

German robotics team wins Avatar XPRIZE showdown

Robotic life imitated art this weekend at a telepresence contest in California, and Germany’s Team NimbRo is $5 million richer as a result. The payoff came at the end of the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition in Long Beach, sponsored by Japan’s All Nippon Airways and organized by the XPRIZE foundation.

The contest incentivized technologies that allow operators to perform real-time robotic operations remotely — a la the fictional blue-skinned androids who are linked to humans in the “Avatar” movie series (with “Avatar: The Way of Water” premiering next month). The concept is also center stage in “The Peripheral,” a sci-fi novel by William Gibson that’s been adapted for the screen on Amazon Prime Video.

Ninety-nine teams signed up for the Avatar XPRIZE in 2018, kicking off rounds of competition that led to the Nov. 5 finals at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center. The robots had to weigh less than 160 kilograms (350 pounds) and be controlled wirelessly.

This weekend, 17 finalist teams from 10 countries brought in their robotic telepresence systems to perform a series of remote tasks such as traversing an 80-foot-long obstacle course strewn with boulders, flipping switches, using a power drill to unscrew a bolt, and selecting the roughest rock in a collection based strictly by feel.

For the finals, the avatars were controlled by outside judges from a separate room, rather than by team members. Points were awarded based on how quickly and how well the tasks were performed. NimbRo’s robot did all 10 tasks in five minutes and 50 seconds.

A robot built by a French team called Pollen Robotics accomplished all the tasks in 10 minutes and 50 seconds, earning the $2 million second prize. Boston-based Team Northeastern came away with the $1 million third prize. The other $2 million of the prize purse was awarded last year to the teams advancing to the finals.

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Cosmic Tech

Carbon XPRIZE winners capitalize on concrete

More than five years after it began, the $20 million NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition is complete — and for both of the top competitors, converting CO2 into concrete turned out to be the winning strategy.

The carbon conversion contest was launched in 2015 to encourage the development of technologies that turn CO2 into useful products, with the effect of reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change.

“Flipping CO2 emissions into valuable products is now a proven, successful strategy to build a better world,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said today in a news release announcing the winners.

Concrete is an attractive target for decarbonization because the current production process is said to account for 7% of global CO2 emissions.

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Cosmic Tech

Elon Musk puts up $100M reward for capturing carbon

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is putting $100 million into a different kind of “X”: An XPRIZE competition to develop new technologies for sucking carbon dioxide out of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans.

Musk and his foundation will provide the prize money for XPRIZE Carbon Removal, an incentive-based competition that’ll be open to teams around the world.

Teams will be required to create pilot systems capable of removing 1 ton of carbon dioxide per day, and show that their systems can be scaled up economically to the gigaton level.

Reducing CO2 is considered a key requirement for heading off the worst effects of the greenhouse effect and climate change. Total annual emissions of energy-related carbon dioxide currently amount to about 33 gigatons. The long-term goal for the XPRIZE teams should be to contribute to removing 10 gigatons of CO2 per year by 2050.

In today’s news release, Musk said XPRIZE Carbon Removal “is not a theoretical competition.”

“We want to make a truly meaningful impact,” he said. “Carbon negativity, not neutrality. The ultimate goal is scalable carbon extraction that is measured based on the ‘fully considered cost per ton,’ which incudes the environmental impact.”

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Cosmic Science

Daily Dose: Satellites spy Arecibo’s ruins from space

Satellite views of Arecibo, a new prize to counter a future food crisis, NASA’s plans for science missions on the moon: Here’s your daily dose of space and science on the Web…

Radio telescope’s ruins seen from above: We’ve already seen the Dec. 1 collapse of  Puerto Rico’s iconic Arecibo radio telescope from the ground and from the air. Now both Planet and Maxar Technologies are providing views of the wreckage as seen from space. The satellite views were captured on Dec. 6.

Astronomers in Puerto Rico and at other facilities such as West Virginia’s Green Bank Observatory are mourning the loss — and there’s already a petition calling on the federal government to back the construction of a new telescope on the site. More than 48,000 signatures have been registered already; the White House will respond if the number hits 100,000 by Jan. 1.

$15 million XPRIZE program targets food of the future: XPRIZE has put together a four-year, $15 million competition to encourage the development of new alternatives to chicken breasts and fish fillets that outperform the originals in terms of environmental sustainability, nutrition and health — while replicating the taste and texture.

The challenge, known as “XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion,” aims to get ahead of a looming global food crisis. XPRIZE is known for creating multimillion-dollar challenges that incentivize technologies such as private-sector spaceflight and super-efficient cars.

NASA lays out science plan for future moon landings: A new report suggests that NASA should send equipment to the moon in advance of the Artemis program’s first crewed lunar landing, which is currently set for 2024. The report lays out strategies for planning science missions near the moon’s south pole, as well as the priorities for study. Those priorities include field geology, sample collection and return, and the deployment of scientific experiments.

To facilitate the effort, the report suggests using uncrewed missions to pre-position tools, instruments and even rovers capable of carrying riders. That meshes with Blue Origin’s plan to ship a ton of cargo to the lunar surface on a robotic Blue Moon lander in 2023. NASA aims to set up an Artemis Base Camp near the moon’s south pole by 2030.

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Cosmic Science

XPRIZE organizes $5M challenge for COVID-19 tests

The nonprofit XPRIZE foundation has assembled a high-powered coalition to take on a high-priority problem: developing high-quality screening tests for COVID-19 that are low-cost and easy to use with a fast turnaround time.

The $5 million XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing competition is the latest project from the folks who created multimillion-dollar contests for privately financed spaceships, super-efficient cars and real-life equivalents of Star Trek’s medical tricorders.

Among those voicing support for the testing development effort are:

  • OpenCovidScreen, a nonprofit group that numbers researchers from such institutions as the University of Washington and business leaders from such companies as Illumina among its advisers and collaborators. OpenCovidScreen’s partners include ThermoFisher Scientific, Google, Amazon and Ancestry.com. The group’s president and co-founder is Jeff Huber, a former Google executive and co-founder of Grail, a cancer detection startup.
  • A $50 million fund known as the COVID Apollo Project, backed by investors including RA Capital, Bain Capital, Perceptive Advisors, Redmile Group and Samsara Biocapital.
  • Healthcare companies including Anthem, Blue Shield of California, BlueCross / BlueShield of South Carolina and Cambia Health Solutions.
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said in a statement that he looks forward to “seeing the breakthroughs that arise from this challenge and the countless lives that will be saved as a result.”

Teams can compete in one of four categories, focusing on at-home tests, point-of-care tests, distributed lab tests or high-throughput lab tests. They’ll be asked to develop new tests that produce results within 12 hours of collecting a sample, using minimally invasive procedures.

Winning teams will be required to deploy and conduct a minimum of 500 tests per week at a live testing site within 60 days, and have the potential to scale up their solutions to thousands of tests per week.

Cost of the test should be less than $15, including all materials, with avenues for reducing costs as production is scaled up.

Currently, the cost of COVID-19 testing can range from less than $100 to more than $1,000, depending on healthcare circumstances. What’s more, the turnaround time for test results can extend past a week, due to shortages in supplies and staffing.

“Fast, affordable, and accessible testing is crucial to containing the COVID-19 pandemic and safely reopening schools, businesses and other vital institutions around the world,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said. “XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing is inspiring the best entrepreneurial and scientific teams to come together to work towards rapid, affordable Covid-19 testing at scale, and ultimately, getting the world up and running again.”

Teams must register by Aug. 31, and the XPRIZE timeline calls for tests to be deployed in a pilot round that runs from Nov. 2, 2020, to Jan. 22, 2021. Winners are to be announced by the end of next January, with scaled-up production planned during the months that follow.

The reaction to today’s announcement was mostly positive. “THIS is what we need right now,” Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at the Federation of American Scientists, said in a tweet.

However, the Food and Drug Administration is likely to have the final word on any tests that come out of the competition. And even without the contest, progress is being made on rapid-turnaround COVID-19 tests. There’s a chance that this XPRIZE will be rendered unnecessary before it reaches its climax. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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GeekWire

XPRIZE offers $5M for job training innovations

The nonprofit organization known as XPRIZE has been in charge of tech competitions focusing on far-out frontiers such as space travel and computerized avatars, but its latest contest hits closer to home: XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling is offering $5 million in prizes for innovations that could revolutionize job training for under-resourced communities.

The 30-month competition, sponsored by a nonprofit venture philanthropy organization called New Profit, kicks off today — just as the national emergency declared due to the coronavirus outbreak is passing the 100-day mark.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

XPRIZE creates Code Games challenge for kids

Game screenshot
The Code Games challenge provides incentives for kids to create video games that play on the themes of exploration, the environment and equity. (Endless Network / E-Line Media / XPRIZE Graphic)

XPRIZE’s latest program to incentivize innovation is going after a new demographic: young people between the ages of 10 and 18 who are up for developing video games that play on the themes of exploration, the environment and social equity.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

ANA Avatar XPRIZE teams go to the next level

Avatar at work
The ANA Avatar XPRIZE aims to encourage the development of devices that will allow travelers to experience remote locales virtually. (ANA Avatar XPRIZE via YouTube)

Seventy-seven teams from 19 countries around the globe have qualified to participate in the $10 million ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition, which aims to promote the development of robotic systems that let travelers connect with far-flung locales virtually.

The roster of competitors includes 27 teams from the United States, ranging from Boston University’s Robotics and Ambient Intelligence Labs to Virtual Vegas.

There are teams from international robotic hot spots such as Japan and South Korea as well as from emerging tech frontiers such as Brazil and Jordan.

“The incredible geographical diversity represented by the 77 teams moving forward will provide the unique perspectives necessary to develop transformative avatar technology capable of transcending physical limitations and expanding the capacity of humankind itself,” David Locke, prize director at the Los Angeles-based XPRIZE founation, said today in a news release.

With Japan’s All Nippon Airways as the title sponsor, the ANA Avatar XPRIZE will challenge teams to come up with physical, non-autonomous robotic avatar systems that enable a human operator to see, hear and interact with a remote environment in real time.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

Global Learning XPRIZE gives $10M to tech teams

Global Learning XPRIZE ceremony
Tech billionaire Elon Musk, at center, awards an XPRIZE trophy to KitKit School creators Sooinn Lee and Gunho Lee, with XPRIZE executives Peter Diamandis, Anousheh Ansari and Emily Church in on the picture. (XPRIZE via YouTube)

Two educational companies shared the $10 million top award in the Global Learning XPRIZE, a contest backed by Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla.

Musk provided a total of $15 million in prize money for the project, which is designed to boost open-source educational software. The $10 million grand prize was shared by KitKit School and Onebillion.

The two teams and three other finalists each received $1 million in 2017 to develop their projects.

Get the full story on GeekWire.