Avatar robots at graduation? Japan pioneered them

Miriam Grace A. Go

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Avatar robots at graduation? Japan pioneered them
A public school in Taguig is the first in the Philippines to dress robots in toga to represent its graduates. The first in the world to do that was a university in Tokyo.

Filipinos were thrilled on Friday, May 22, to watch (online, of course) the ceremony at a public high school in Taguig City, where robots dressed in toga represented graduates who were prevented from coming because of the coronavirus-related lockdown. 

The Senator Renato “Compañero” Cayetano Memorial Science and Technology High School – with only a handful of school and Department of Education officials physically present – rolled 4 robots onto the stage alternately, like students lined up to receive their diplomas. 

In each cycle, the head of the robots – tablets, actually – changed screens to show the live avatars (profiles) of a different set of students. They did this until all 179 graduates had been honored. 

The 4 robots were assembled and controlled by the school’s robotics team. The robots will make the rounds to conduct the graduation ceremonies in all of Taguig City’s 36 other public schools (think 17,000 students). 

The so-called future of graduations (at least until the world shall have beat COVID-19) started in Japan. 

On March 28, the Business BreakThrough (BBT) University in Tokyo pioneered the use of avatar robots in its graduation rite. (The international press got wind of it only in the first week of April, and the wires were also abuzz with the news.) 

According to the university’s press release, 4 graduates operated the robots from their homes while their classmates were hooked on Zoom, waiting for their avatars’ turn to appear on the iPads as their names were called. 

CONTROL ROOM. The Zoom conference where graduating students await their turn in  the 'newme' avatar. Photo from the BBT University website

But let’s stop referring to the graduates’ substitutes as just “robots.” They have a name, and it’s “newme.”

In fact, developer ANA Holdings (yes, also the owner of the airline) says “newme” shouldn’t be called a robot because it takes on a personality once a person’s avatar signs in on the tablet computer that serves as its head.

“As the name implies, this avatar is a ‘new me’ that replaces ‘me as usual.’ Not a robot. Here, personality is born only when you ‘avatar in’ and exists as ‘I,’” the avatar robot’s website says. 

ANA Holdings unveiled what it called a “groundbreaking technology” at the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies’ “A City in 2030 – Society 5.0 TOWN” show in Tokyo in October 2019. 

A day before the exhibition opened, the company said in an October 18 press release: “The ANA HD exhibit will be divided into several scenario-based themes, with each demonstrating a unique way to implement Avatar technology. There will be scenarios for the use of robots in a kitchen, school, fish market, living room, laboratory, and skill sharing.” 

That sounds to me like the coronavirus pandemic has just hastened our acceptance that “newme” and similar technologies will become our inevitable partners in everyday activities. (READ: Robots are playing many roles and offering lessons in the coronavirus crisis)  

Oh, by the way, on May 15 – exactly a week before the Taguig event in the Philippines – there was a university in the United States that streamed its graduation ceremonies as well. And, you guessed it right, the Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Global Management ceremony was graced by avatar robots too! – Rappler.com 

As of Sunday morning, May 24, Japan, with an estimated population of 126.52 million, has 16,203 coronavirus cases, with 713 deaths and 10,338 recoveries.

The Philippines, with an estimated population of 109.4 million, has 12,305 coronavirus cases, with 817 deaths, and 2,561 recoveries.

Bookmark this special page to follow Rappler’s running coverage: NOVEL CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK: News, Advisories, Explainers.

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Miriam Grace A. Go

Miriam Grace A Go’s areas of interest are local governance, campaigns and elections, and anything Japanese.