“Beaming” is the term used by the European Commission’s international project to develop an immersive telepresence experience. Combining existing technologies such as haptics and motion capture, they’re working to give the user the feeling of being at the receiver location.

At the avatar end of the line, the aim is to give other humans the sense of interacting not with a holoprojection or a robot but with a person, recognisable and familiar to those who know the user. The avatar should display the facial expressions, body language and other social clues we rely on to augment our face-to-face communications. This is a far more complex task than that of current mass-market telepresence drones like the Anybot.

Anybot telepresence

The $9,700 Anybot

How Real is Beaming, and How Soon?

There have already been some successes in beaming. Mel Slater, Professor of Virtual Environments at University College London (UCL) and head of the European Commission beaming project, reports that they have beamed people from Barcelona to London, where they were embodied either by a telerobot [a remote controlled device, without agency] or by an avatar in a specially prepared room of projectors. Though facial expressions can’t yet be beamed with a satisfactory level of detail, the beaming of larger movements has certainly been successful.

The technology involved is not prohibitively expensive, and a beaming interaction may well take up less bandwidth than streaming video. It may not be too long before the Kinect sensors and webcams in our homes are replaced by tech specifically designed for beaming. For more on beaming technology, check out this video:

Beaming and Crimes of Telepresence

There are many obvious ways in which beaming technology could be used for good. But law researcher Ray Purdy has highlighted some of the potential applications of beaming for criminal purposes: for one, the possibility of robotic rape of an unwilling human via beaming technology.

The first scenario that comes to mind when you consider this possibility might be along the lines of a robot, controlled by a human man, being used to assault or rape a human woman. But there are many other ways that beaming could be used in sexual crime.

For example, there’s the question of hacking. If consenting adults are having sex via beaming, what happens if their connection is hacked? Another human intruding into the beaming experience would be able to commit crimes of varying degrees of intrusiveness. Any or all of these crimes could be sexual in nature, though they could also be committed for business or political purposes:

  • Beam voyeurism – watching and listening to beamed interactions whose participants who may not even be aware of the hacker’s presence
  • Haptic lurking – feeling the full sensory experience of other people’s beamed interactions, again potentially without the participants becoming aware of the intrusion
  • Haptic possession – taking over a beamed transmission and replacing the user’s actions with the hacker’s, which would allow them to interact with people at the receiving end of the line
  • Beamed impersonation – in any of these crimes, the people at the receiving end may believe the avatar is controlled by the person they consented to beam in. This impression could be strengthened with information drawn from social networks and from the beaming technology itself, allowing the hacker to discuss familiar topics and have the avatar move or speak with the hacked user’s characteristic mannerisms to  maintain the deception.
  • Assault via avatar – using haptic possession to attack someone at the receiving end. Whether sexual or not, hacking an avatar in order to assault people is a crime whose perpetrator may prove difficult to trace and prosecute.

By the way, I made those terms up as I was writing; I don’t know if any “official” terms have been coined for these types of crime.

These new crimes would leave little forensic evidence other than the digital. There would be no DNA or trace evidence at the crime scene. In fact, there may even be legal issues surrounding the definition of the crime scene. In the case of assault by avatar, did the crime occur at the location of the person assaulted or at the location of the hacker? Who should have jurisdiction over the investigation and prosecution?

Sex Crime via Beaming

In the case of sex crimes via avatar, definitions may also be argued. Is it rape if the victim is penetrated by the artificial penis of a telerobot avatar controlled by a human without consent? Or should this be viewed by the law as forcible penetration with a foreign object rather than with a penis? If the hacker’s penis itself is transmitting the action to the avatar, is that rape? What if the avatar’s penis is controlled by the hacker’s hand movements or voice instead?

Imagine a future in which cyber-bullying extends to happy slapping via avatar. Imagine the potential for misuse of beaming technology to spy, to rape, to kill.

The Benefits of Beaming

Imagine also the good that beaming technology offers: life-saving operations can already be carried out remotely, but even more deaths might be avoided if the interface allowed the surgeon to fully sense the remote environment and the patient’s body. Families and friends could hug one another across the world. People with poor social skills might find beamed interactions less stressful, since they allow the user to be present at another location without leaving their familiar environment.

Robot fancy dress costumes

Thinking (and dancing) inside the box

Beaming already exists. It will get better and cheaper. It will one day (perhaps soon) be available to those who want to buy or rent the necessary tech. Who will use it, and what will they do with it? Science fiction and technological fact are close together in this case, and we may soon have to consider the security issues of our beaming-enabled systems at home.

Let’s not forget that beaming technology, combined with progress in telerobotics and robot sex tech, will make it possible to have sex with your human partner (or the haptic porn star of your choice) without ever touching skin to skin. That’s an awesome thought, and one that raises a whole set of further issues I’ll explore one-by-one in later posts.

Source: BBC News

Anybot image: ntoper

Dancing image: Clinton Steeds

© 2012 Robot Sex Tech Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha