Future Tense

Language matters; the names we give things influence how we think about them.

This realization is not new, but became apparent once again thinking about the vision for the future of First Responders as part of the DHS EMERGE program. If you are thinking 3 to 5 years in the future, the descriptions tend to be of the flavor “just like now, only different” as a way of helping people understand imminent change. Thus the classic “horseless carriages” are just like the carriages we know now, only without the horse (and the role of draught horses has never been the same). “Driverless cars” are just like those we have now, only you don’t need to drive them, and autonomous vehicles just like any vehicle, only operating by themselves. This transitional language is meant to soothe the fearful.

But if you’re thinking 20 years into the future, transitional language is inadequate. Think back 20 years…HTML and the World Wide Web had just been invented, smart phones and Facebook and the Y2K crisis and revolutions fueled by social media still long into the future. We can’t imagine life now without the internet…20 years ago we couldn’t imagine life with it.

DHS EMERGE is looking at wearable technology, and we spent some time trying to define what constitutes a “wearable”. In the spirit of moving past transitional language, the obvious question became “what does a wearable look like if you stop assuming a wearer?” And why do we send firefighters into unbearably hot, dangerous situations where visibility and communications are impaired and the limits of human endurance are never far away? Couldn’t robots do some of that? Maybe robot swarms, some fighting the fire, some carrying away the injured, some sniffing for dangerous chemicals nearby…if a firefighter controls the swarm behavior with, say, a haptic gesture device, is that a wearable too? And what is the role of the human? What would the robots call it? Maybe a human-mediated ecosystem, since the key role for the human in this scenario is making key decisions in real time, whereas mostly the robots would be on their own.

And how close do you have to be in space for a system to be a wearable? Some experimental prostheses now can be controlled directly by nerve signals from the human wearer. One experiment inserted a small radio transmitter in the loop and placed the prosthesis across the room in an effort to explore missing limb syndrome. How close is close enough? Of course you can’t think about the future without consulting William Gibson… in this case his new book The Peripheral explores the same type of idea, only the distance is across both space and time.

Gibson also channels the future through a Law Enforcement officer named Lowbeer. A few quotes from a scene in which Lowbeer is interacting with several humans and a rented avatar being controlled by a person of interest in Canada.

[speaking to the remote operator of the rented avatar]: “I am Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer of the Metropolitan Police. You do understand you are present here, legally, under the Android Avatar Act? …Canadian law makes certain distinctions, around physically manifested telepresence, which we do not.”


“Someone my age is all feeds…For my sins, I’ve continual access to most things, resulting in a terrible habit of behaving as if I already know everyone I meet.”


[dialogue between other characters after Lowbeer leaves]: “[She] sampled our…DNA” [he said] examining the palm of the hand that had shaken Lowbeer’s. “Of course she did…how [else] could she be positive we’re who we claim to be?” “We could bloody sample hers”…”And be renditioned…”


So who is legally responsible for damage done by a drone operated from outside the legal jurisdiction? Is DNA-based identity really the future, and what skills will an Officer need for that? And of course who gets access to what informaiton and how do you protect it?

Once you change the language and remove the transitional framework of the words, the opportunities for the future and for the innovations to get us there, open much wider. Of course this whole realization had the bad taste to impinge upon me in that half awake, half asleep stupor after reading several chapters of Gibson on a flight to Atlanta…as a poem. I don’t normally do poetry, but thought this one was pretty good, so here it is. I’ve dubbed the genre technoslash.

Terminal Terminology

Horseless carriage? Mourn
The late forgotten draught
Self-driving car? Gone
Captain of the long and winding road
Autonomous vehicle? Certainty
In 20 years they all must be
Transport. Or like automobile become car, simply Go.

Wearables. Assume the wearer within.
Sensors, actuators, robotic swarms
To them perhaps
Human-mediated systems
And now remote. Telepresence.
How close proxim to wearer is the worn?


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