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A few years back, I was visiting a shop in Singapore with a group from the New America think-tank (one of three partners in our Future Tense Project). The teddy bear, which could be used as a companion for elderly people living alone, was one of the many gizmos that the enthusiastic pitchwoman displayed. The AI-empowered and Bluetooth-connected cuddly bear would send alerts to its owners in case it wasn't being hugged anymore.
Many products and initiatives are being developed that make use of technology to help seniors with mild dementia and alleviate loneliness. They also provide remote monitoring for loved ones and caregivers, which can be very helpful in maintaining peace of mind.
Unfortunately, for the Singaporean host who walked us through the showroom, the concept was still quite novel. Her audience was not caregivers or investors looking for reinforcements but privacy-obsessed tech policy experts from D.C. She had, unknowingly, fed the bear. What would happen to all the patient data? How much information would these seniors be able to access about the furry trojans in their midst? They could opt out. We could have saved a lot of time and asked her "How dare you?" (even though she was not involved in the design of the product).
Many of us watched from the sidelines and didn't speak up. I was not thinking about how Singaporean health authorities might be monitoring grandmas' moods and movements, or what they might do to the information. It would have been so sweet for my mother to have a bear cuddling her and asking her to take her medication. I also thought how wonderful it would be to know how she is doing. Recently, she was diagnosed with Alzheimers. She was proud and independent and didn't like having caregivers or nurses drop in on her. She really misses having pets.
This is the thing with technology and its tradeoffs. We must navigate between convenience, security, privacy. They are weighed differently depending on who we really are and where we are at the moment in terms of our most pressing concerns and needs. I may have been a bit too concerned about privacy five years ago.
The fact that some people find it as comforting as others is alarming, is the theme of The Wait. This powerful Future Tense Fiction story was published last week by Andrea Chapela, one of Mexico's most gifted young writers. Chapelas imagined National Institute of Citizen Registration and Geolocation is the setting for the story. The story features a Michoacn woman who travels to the capital to find her brother. His tracking pin stopped pinging him months before.
Chapela's story is filled with anxiety due to the technology tradeoffs. The Mexican civil society in The Wait was deeply saddened by the disappearances of so many of its citizens. They demanded a foolproof surveillance system based on mandatory tracking chips that were implanted in every wrist. Victor, the young man who disappeared in the story, has long resent the government's takeover of the surveillance system. However, his mother had previously argued with him about the matter, as the protagonist recalls.
He was told by his mother that he did not understand how things were before. When she was young, she had to share her location with friends. She had to tell them everything, including where she was going and what she was doing. A girl could not be trusted to not end up among the forced disappearance statistics. People had created their own social tracking systems to protect each other long before the Registry was established. Privacy was a luxury and a vulnerability that they were willing to give up.
Are you a part of the solution or part of the problem? Protector or oppressor? Outgunned or paid off by organized crime? You may not know the answers to these questions in places where it isn't all black or white (most societies that are between the extremes a Stalinist Soviet Union and Norway today), and they can change daily.
Vivette Garcia-Deister is a professor at Universidad Autonoma de Mexico. She wrote Chapelas' response essay in which she pointed out that government responses to calls for increased security by increasing surveillance are a recurring theme in a country such as Mexico and can make people more vulnerable.
Garcia-Deister comments on the story:
The Registry clerk asks our protagonist when the last time they saw him. As is often the case with authorities in many countries, we don't know what the bureaucrat is asking. The story's protagonist doesnt even know if the bureaucrat is part of the problem. We don't know if the clerk is lying to us, asking probing questions or acknowledging a system information gap.
In our world, however, the news this week was not about implanted chip technology that allows the Mexican government track us. It was about Astro, a mobile robot dog that keeps us company, and reports back to Jeff Bezos.
This AI-powered pet is just one of many that have been made before. It's also a prototype of many others that will follow. These will no doubt be commonplace one day, I am certain. Although Astro 1.0 is not a very useful product, I find it to be a joy that it comes with cupholders, which is a nice touch, unlike the Singaporean teddy bear.
These are stories from Future Tense's recent past.
Usama Khilji Facebook Should Allow the Taliban to Post?
Josephine Wolff It is a must to update your iPhone and other Apple devices
Jake Dean The missing link in Bidens' Revolutionary Solar Energy Program
Yana Pashaeva A Divorced Couple Is Fighting Over Frozen Dead Bodies
Kevin Doxzen, Diana M. Bowman: What does global health justice look like with a seven-figure drug?
Wish Wed was Published Here
Facebook Is Like Chairs. Telephones are not allowed. No, Cars. Will Oremus, Washington Post
Future Tense Recommendations
Although I didn't make it to the Spy Museum, which was so popular in Washington, I did visit the two-year-old pavilion that specializes in espionage south of the National Mall. The museums exhibits were able to connect with a variety of audiences, including students, gee-wiz tech aficionados, historians and masters of trade. The exhibits show how the whole country's history can be told through an intelligence lens. However, there are plenty of space for riveting chapters on global espionage, such as the Enigma code breaking during World War II, postwar Berlin and post-9/11 surveillance. We decided to watch The Imitation Game, an interactive on wartime code-breaking that my son was so interested in that we watched it the next day. Mission accomplished.
What's Next? TBD
This week's episode of Slates technology podcast features Lizzie OLeary, Wall Street Journal tech reporter Georgia Wells talking about her recent article on Facebooks research into the impact of Instagrams on teenage girls' mental health. It was part of Journals blockbuster Facebook Files Series. Lizzie spoke with Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health about the problems we continue to have with COVID testing.
Science Fiction/Real Policy Book Club - The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Wednesday, Oct. 13, 6-7 p.m. Eastern
Barack Obama selected The Ministry for the Future as one of his favourite books for 2020. It is a book that attempts to reduce the devastating effects of global warming. It is a combination of economic and monetary policies, drones and engineering. For a lively discussion on the book, join us and our friends at Issues in Science and Technology.
Future Tense is a collaboration between Slate, New America and Arizona State University. It examines emerging technologies and public policy.