Robot conversations

Using the prototype robot avatar last year in COP22

In the last week of COP23, I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Phil Cornforth, VP for EE Technology Services and Governance at Deutsche Telekom in London. Last year he developed a Robot Avatar, which was created to provide a unique immersive experience enabling remote participation with a physical representation in situations such as conferences and meetings. Video conferencing can save huge amounts of time and money, and above all, emissions as it reduces the need for travel. However, people using this technology often feel they can easily be forgotten in a large meeting, as they have no direct physical representation. The Robot Avatar was originally developed to try to solve this, but it also has a huge number of other potential uses.

An early prototype of the Robot Avatar was available at COP22, held in Marrakesh last year. There were a number of technological challenges with regards to the systems and networks, which Phil and his team have been able to learn from and have spent the last year developing the technology accordingly. The current Robot Avatar system uses mobile technology, which means that any person with a mobile device, using android as an operating system, could connect to it. Using it in a virtual reality headset enables you to see the environment though avatar eyes, moving its head around as you move the device, to view a room, as well as listening and speaking through the avatar. You can also connect through a web browser on a normal desktop computer and manually move the avatar’s head for a less immersive experience.

The many developments that have taken place have resulted in a more reliable technology, in particular in heavily regulated environments like COP, and this year we were looking to use the Robot Avatar to interact with people visiting the Walker stand. Technology such as the Robot Avatar developed by Deutsche Telekom could become an incredibly important tool, as this could provide a solution for enhancing virtual participation, on a very personal scale, which is very much in keeping with the UNFCCC values for COP. Unfortunately, the cost of developing the technology has also increased. Consequently, negotiations surrounding the use of the robot and the legal and insurance-related matters surrounding it, were not able to be completed on time. This highlights the contradictions which were evident at COP. A conference of this proportion still has many barriers, whether regulatory for communications, or inadequate technology support for disseminating information where this is supposed to be one of COP’s focuses.

Phil Cornforth had a panel discussion in the second week of COP23 about technology, which by all accounts was a unbridled success. However, Phil did highlight that there was a lack of people from the technology sector present at COP, which you would have thought would be an important area of engagement for problem-solving, promoting new solutions, and coming up with new ideas for better communication.

Phil suggested many uses for the Robot Avatar, one idea being that it could be used to facilitate communication between nations, enabling discussion around development, adaptation and mitigation strategies which connecting countries. It could be used to exchange techniques and experiences in real-time with local communities, as well as promote solutions to improve communications technology in developing countries.

There will always be challenges in the technology sector, and the need to keep pace with new developments or consumer demand is relentless. We must continue to strive to find new ways of making this work for all, irrespective of global location. This process is already on track to bring immeasurable benefits to society as a tool for better connecting countries, as well as enhancing our ability to come up with solutions to the biggest challenge we all face: climate change.