On a wooden stage in Oakland, California, Edward Snowden rolled out to address the crowd in robot form.
The robot, complete with a video screen showing Snowden’s face, maneuvered across the stage and came to rest in a spot marked out on the floor in bright gaffer’s tape.
It’s a common sight these days. Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed massive government spying programs to journalists in 2013, makes numerous appearances around the world through screens and video-conferencing robots. Next, he expects he’ll be able to talk with people as though he’s there in the room with them, courtesy of virtual and augmented reality.
Speaking to a crowd gathered for Fusion’s Real Future Fair at the Oakland Museum of California, Snowden said technology has already impacted the way he experiences his life away from the United States, his home country. Snowden lives in Russia and has been charged with crimes in the US under the Espionage Act and other federal laws.
“We are living through an extraordinary moment,” Snowden said. “We are living through the end of exile as a tool of political repression.”
Even though he lives far from his biggest supporters, he can appear publicly and continue influencing the conversation he started with his disclosures, he said. Snowden has said he’ll return home and face the charges against him if he’s allowed to make a case to the jury for why he disclosed government secrets. The Obama administration has promised Snowden will receive the full benefits of due process under the law.
Soon, Snowden said, he’ll be able to appear in an even more realistic form.
“In the coming years I might not be in a body with wheels. I might not have a physical presence at all,” Snowden said. But, “it might feel more real.”
Snowden, who this year was the subject of a feature film by director Oliver Stone, is encouraged by the public’s embrace of augmented reality, which adds a layer of digital images and interactivity over the physical world.
Still, he hasn’t really gotten into the most popular pastime based on augmented reality.
“I haven’t played so much Pokemon Go,” he said.
Augmented technology has the ability to increase civic engagement and change the way people see their surroundings, Snowden said. For example, instead of showing you a Charizard, an augmented reality program could use location-based information to show you the political history of a street corner, answering questions like, what happened here in history? Who lives here? Was there a police shooting here?
“You realize that you are not just looking at the world in another way but you’re relating to it in a different way,” Snowden said.
Snowden also spoke about the recent election of Donald Trump, reiterating comments he made last week at an event in Amsterdam. Technology, he said, needs to be built to enforce everyone in the world’s right to privacy. That way we don’t have to depend on politicians to protect it for us.
To titters in the crowd, Snowden explained that this is “a much more reliable plan than hoping for Donald Trump to save the Earth.”
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