James Cameron’s Avatar took the world by storm back in 2009, earning nearly $3 billion at the box office and spurring the development of not one, but two upcoming sequels. While the quality of the movie itself is up for debate, there’s no question that it had an amazing idea at its core. The protagonists of Avatar are able to project their minds into vat-grown, genetically engineered hybrid bodies in order to interact with the native Na’vi aliens. When plugged into the machine, Jake Sully and the others can see, taste, feel, and smell everything that their Avatar body does. It’s a thrilling concept, spurring dreams of a day when we could use similar technology to explore strange new worlds without having to risk our fragile human bodies in the task. It’s far-fetched, to be sure, but it shouldn’t surprise anybody that the closest thing to Avatar technology right now is currently being developed by — who else? — the United States military.
Yes, according to the 2013 budget for DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, similar technology is indeed being investigated, and the project is even named “Avatar.” According to Wired, the project will receive $7 million in funding and “will 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.” In other words, they’re attempting to further telepresence technology to allow soldiers to control bipedal robots, sort of along the same lines as Jake and his Na’vi doppelganger. If you were hoping this story would actually include vat-grown alien bodies, sorry, but that’s what you get for a paltry $7 million these days.
The robots could be used for various duties that are inherently hazardous but which could benefit from a human mind directing the action, such as “room clearing, sentry control [and] combat casualty recovery.” Obviously, the budget doesn’t go into details of how the interface would work, but given past developments the eventual goal is likely to allow a direct interface between the soldier and the controlled robot. That still seems like science fiction, but it’s probably a safe bet that DARPA’s closer to the goal than they’ve publically let on. And hey, once they release the civilian tech we can all run around in super-hot Surrogates bodies!
One question remains, however: can James Cameron now write off this DARPA research as a marketing expense towards Avatar 2?