In his latest ABC TV documentary Meet the Avatars, Australian biomedical engineer and inventor Dr Jordan Nguyen talks to a paraplegic man who used virtual reality therapy to help him walk again.
“It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” Dr Nguyen told attendees at the Nutanix NEXT event in Melbourne.
“A friend of mine, a C7 complete paraplegic had a bike accident which severed his spinal cord – after three quarters of a year, using virtual reality therapy he sees himself climbing Mt Everest while the therapist is moving his legs. He was told he’d never feel his feet again – we not only got to see him move his feet, we got to see him stand,” Dr Nguyen said.
“This is incredible because it’s opening up this whole new area of research which right now seems like magic because we don’t completely understand how the spinal cord can heal itself. It’s like the placebo effect but it’s in overdrive because those signals need to physically get through the muscles.”
Dr Nguyen believes virtual reality is going to change everything, going beyond gaming and into the healthcare industry and other market sectors, taking advantage of cloud, robotics, AI, augmented reality and biometrics technologies.
The next steps in this virtual world are just as exciting and involve ‘creating virtual copies of people’, he said.
During a TEDx talk last year Dr Nguyen demonstrated how he worked with Australian holographic company, Humense, to create a digital copy of himself. One minute of footage (4TB of data) was processed by 84 cameras, connected to a cloud service.
“I met my virtual self on stage. It’s the weirdest thing standing face to face with a copy of yourself. Your brain tells you that it’s someone who looks like you but is not you and you have this weird objective external experience of yourself,” he said.
Looking at his own Avatar, Dr Nguyen noticed that his right shoulder blade was sitting lower than his left. Initially thinking it was a ‘rendering’ problem, he quickly realised that it was in fact an issue that a podiatrist needed to address.
“Our brain builds up this whole model of who we are and what we look like – and it starts to cloud our real time vision. And so after having this external objective experience of myself, I went and saw a podiatrist … and it was a problem that was propagated all up the right side of my body,” he said.
Dr Nguyen said Avatars have many applications such as creating virtual offices and emphasises that they do not replace human connection.
“When we have face-to-face interactions, the second our eyes make contact, we have retina lock-in. As soon as your retinas line up, your brain starts instantly producing new neurons specifically for that person. We physically change each other – that’s why is so much more powerful being in someone’s presence than over a screen.
“What I love about technology is we are learning more and more about ourselves as we advance,” he said.
Using virtual reality technologies, Dr Nguyen also created an avatar experience during a documentary for people still in the grieving process after they lose a loved one. The dark side of this of this use of technology was revealed in an episode of the popular British science fiction TV series, Black Mirror.
Dr Nguyen found that shortly after a loved one dies, having a digital copy or representation of that person caught in space and time and being able to have a conversation with that person can potentially ease the grieving process.
“If you are very close to that person, it can be a slightly traumatic thing but if you are slightly removed, it can be very positive,” he said. “That person at that moment in time can have conversations with their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren … so they get to know their ancestors.”
What happens over on the dark side?
In April, Tesla, SpaceX and OpenAI founder Elon Musk said that the future of AI was a scary proposition. Also last month, he co-signed an open letter to the United Nations with Mustafa Suleyman, founder and head of applied AI at Google’s DeepMind and 114 other AI and robotics experts asking to halt the use of autonomous weapons that the group say threaten a ‘third revolution in warfare.’
“What underlies a lot of what I do is that there are potential futures that could be very dark but that turns into excitement when I think, we steer where technology goes, especially those who understand it – but this is why we need more people talking about it,” said Dr Nguyen.
“We need people to talk about where these different technologies are taking us because regulations can’t keep up with the rate of change anymore. We need to make those decisions, we need to have those conversations and we need to be smarter as a society.”
When Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo systems defeated South Korean Go champion Lee Se-dol last year, Google researcher David Silver said the technology’s next role should be to advance human health.
“This was an incredible moment in time but suddenly all of the headlines have come out in all our newspapers and people start freaking out, thinking they are going to lose their jobs. That propagates this horror message – obviously we have movies from the past, many people think of The Terminator and The Matrix, but I think they are great warnings for a future that could be made possible and we are seeing those potential possibilities coming through.
“So what we need to do is step into the future together – being smart with our technology but also we shouldn’t just jump to these instant fear conclusions where we start looking at very small aspects of AI.
“Artificial intelligence is broad, there are so many uses cases of AI which really just find patterns in data to give us useful information, give us better medical devices, allow us to have mind control over something like a wheelchair, and the stuff where people try and make it cognitive, have those natural language processes connected with all these things – which still isn’t scary but it gives us new solutions to problems that we couldn’t solve before.”