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A few years ago, I was with a group of members of the New America think tank (one of three partners in our Future Tense project) visiting a skunk tech workshop in Singapore. Among the various gadgets the enthusiastic pitchwoman showed off was a teddy bear that could serve as a companion for the elderly living alone. The AI-powered, Bluetooth-connected cuddly creature would provide medication reminders and alerts to her assistants in case she was no longer cuddled on demand.
There are many such products and efforts now being made that use technology to relieve loneliness and help older people with mild dementia, and provide caregivers and loved ones with remote monitoring, for everyone’s peace of mind.
But unfortunately for the Singaporean host who took us through the showroom that day, the concept was still fairly new, and his audience was not investors or caregivers looking for backup, but a group. of tech policy geeks obsessed with DC’s privacy She had unknowingly, you will have to forgive me, fed the bear. Who would compile all the data from these patients and what would be done with it? What level of disclosure would be made to these elderly people about the furry Trojan horse spies among them? Could they withdraw? We could have saved a lot of time by simply asking him, “How dare you? (Even though she had no role in the design of the product).
However, several of us sat on the sidelines and didn’t say much. In my case, I wasn’t really thinking about the Singaporean health authorities who would follow grandma’s every move and mood, and what they might do with their acquired knowledge. I just thought how great it would be for my mom to have such a cute bear begging her to take her meds and let me know how she was doing. She had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She was also a proud and stubbornly independent woman who didn’t want nurses or orderlies to come to her and be in her business. Oh, and she really missed having pets.
That’s the problem with technology and its tradeoffs, especially our perpetual navigation between the shoals of convenience, security, and privacy. We weigh them differently depending not only on who we are, but where we are at the moment, in terms of our highest apprehensions and needs. Five years earlier, I might have piled up my colleagues’ questions about privacy.
The fact that some of us find it as reassuring as others find it alarming that we are all being followed like never before is the theme of “The Wait,” our powerful Future Tense Fiction story published last week, written by one one of the most talented young writers, Andrea Chapela. Much of the story takes place within the bleak confines of the imaginary National Institute for Citizen Registration and Geolocation of Chapela, and features a woman from the state of Michoacán coming to the capital to find out where it is. his brother, whose locator pin stopped ringing his location months earlier. .
Much of the palpable anxiety in Chapela’s account stems from the ambiguities of technology compromises. Desperate for the disappearance of so many of its citizens, Mexican civil society in “The Wait” called for a foolproof surveillance system based on a mandatory tracking chip implanted in everyone’s wrist. Victor, the missing young man in history, has long regretted the government’s takeover of this surveillance system, but his mother had argued with him about it earlier, as the protagonist recalls:
“Your mom told him he didn’t understand what it was like before, when she was young and she had to share her location with her friends, always telling them where she was going, what she was doing, letting them know everything to everyone because a girl could not be trusted not to end up as another number in the statistics of enforced disappearances. Long before the Registry, people had created their own social tracking system to protect each other. Privacy had been a luxury and a vulnerability they were willing to sacrifice.
Is government part of your problem or part of its solution? Oppressor or protector? Overtaken by organized crime, or paid for by it? In places where it is not all black or white (most societies, that is, between the extremes of a present day Norway and a Stalinist Soviet Union), you often do not know the answers. to these questions, and they can change from day to day.
Vivette Garcia-Deister, a professor at the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, wrote the essay response to Chapela’s story, in which she points out that the government responding to calls for more security by increasing surveillance is a recurring theme. in a country like Mexico, and one that can make people more vulnerable in the end.
Commenting on the story, Garcia-Deister writes:
“When was the last time you saw this person?” “ asks the clerk of our protagonist. At this point in the story – as is often the case in interactions with authority figures in too many countries – we don’t know, and the protagonist of the story herself doesn’t know if the bureaucrat who asks the questions is part of the problem or part of the solution. We don’t know if the clerk is feigning ignorance, asking probing questions, or acknowledging an information gap in the system.
Back in our world, of course, the news of the week was not about implanted chips allowing the Mexican government to track us, but a mobile robot dog named Astro who keeps us company and reports to Jeff Bezos.
It’s the last of many AI-powered pets that came before it, and certainly yet a first iteration of many that will follow. I have no doubt that these will be ubiquitous one day. While Astro 1.0 seems very limited in its usefulness, I’m encouraged that unlike the Singaporean teddy bear, it comes with cup holders.
Here are stories from Future Tense’s recent past.
I wish we had posted this
“Facebook is like chairs. No, the phones. No, the cars. No … “by Will Oremus, Washington Post
The recommended future
I’ve never been to the old Spy Museum which has become such an unlikely tourist hit in Washington, but I recently visited the imposing two-year-old spy lodge south of the National Mall. I was impressed with how the museum exhibits manage to connect on different levels with history buffs, gee-wiz tech buffs, college students, and (I’m guessing here) masters of the trade. As you browse the exhibits, you realize how the whole history of the country can be told through a spy lens, but there is also ample space given to fascinating chapters of global espionage, such as breaking the code. Enigma during WWII, postwar Berlin, and post 9/11 surveillance. My son expressed so much interest in the Wartime Code Decryption interactives, we decided to watch The imitation game The next day. Mission accomplished.
And then: to be determined
In this week’s episode of Slate’s tech podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary spoke to Wall Street Journal tech reporter Georgia Wells about her recent article examining Facebook’s own research into the effect. Instagram post about adolescent mental health. (This was part of the Journal’s hit Facebook Files series.) Last week, Lizzie interviewed Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, about how we keep testing. COVID in a wrong way.
Events to come
Real Science Fiction / Politics Book Club: The ministry of the future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Wednesday, October 13, 6 p.m. – 7 p.m. Eastern Time
In The ministry of the future, selected by Barack Obama as one of his favorite books of 2020, humanity is trying to mitigate the disastrous impacts of global warming in the not-so-distant future. It combines economic and monetary policy, drones, engineering, human struggle, etc. Join us and our partners at Issues in Science and Technology for a lively discussion about the book.
Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.