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Future Tense: Will


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Future Tense, one of the revolving features on this page, presents stories from the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, their boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what will and could be.


When I switched on the computer simulation of my long-dead grandfather, Dr. William Seaman Bainbridge (18701947), I rather expected he would be irrational, incoherent, or even insane. Thus his avatar surprised me when he looked me coolly in the eye and ordered me, in a commanding tone of voice, to explain his situation. I should have realized that a man capable of dissecting his own father's skull, hoping to explain his parents' estrangement as the result of a brain lesion, would not be squeamish. I should have remembered that his nickname was Will.

I told him I had constructed an NLP/HMM/CBR/AI avatar with information about his life and thoughts, including his 11 semiautobiographical medical books and 100 journal articles in which he described the surgery he had performed, his thoughts about psychiatry, and his principles for good health. Other aspects of his personality had come from personal letters, travel diaries (19181941), and the childhood experiences his parents described in the books they wrote about their 18791880 world tour of Protestant missions. For the kinesics of his avatar, I extracted motion-capture sequences from home movies. For the dialogue system, the best I could do was take an average of two men whose recordings matched my dim memory of his voice: U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt and Will's cousin, Bainbridge Colby, who had been President Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state. Gently, I explained that while his wife and children had all died, many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even great-great-grandchildren still lived.

His avatar stood motionless for a moment, then looked down, moved his hand across his simulated face as if to brush away real tears, and sighed. "I remember nothing of the afterlife," he said. "Does that mean my religious faith was untrue?" I assured him it was perfectly natural that he could not recall Heaven, because all his data came from before his death. We even knew his last faith-filled words to his wife, because his friend, Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, had published them in a book: "June, I shall wait for you on the other side." I suggested to him that their souls had been united now for many decades. I did not tell him that June had died only after Alzheimer's had apparently robbed her of all memory of him.

After deep thought, he straightened up, winked at me, and cheerfully exclaimed, "Then we have much work to do!" Scientist that he was, he bombarded me with increasingly more sophisticated technical questions until he had a full grasp of the process I had used to emulate him. He demanded that I show him modern information technologies, so I gave him a tour of the tablet computer on which I was taking notes. When I somewhat condescendingly explained email to him, he halted my monologue with a harsh stare, saying, "But I used email in 1923 to communicate with my mother while I was investigating the Ruhr crisis in Germany!" I began to protest that this was impossible, but he wagged his virtual finger and told me that his cable address had been "bridgebain new york," and that a telegram sent from anywhere in the world would arrive at his office instantly, in the hands of the Western Union boy. Further, he proclaimed angrily, he had proposed marriage to June back in 1911 via long-distance telephone, so he was not the ignorant savage I apparently supposed he was.

Before I could think of excuses, he compelled me to begin simulating his mother, Lucy. Although she had died in 1928 and left neither movies nor memories in the mind of any living person, she had published several books describing her world travels and her 16 years helping immigrants on behalf of the New York City Mission Society. This organization was still active, and its storeroom held her scrapbooks plus copies of her monthly essays for the Mission Society magazine. Will said he had selected his mother for the second emulation experiment simply because her thoughts were well documented, but I knew better. For years after her death, he had aggressively promoted her fame, forcing one of his patients to write a sanctimonious biography, and presented copies of her books to everybody from Helen Keller to the queen of Belgium.

The full scope of my fate then dawned on me. Once Lucy had been resurrected, they would force me to restore her husband who also had published extensively. He had separated from her in 1890, so they would adjust his avatar to make him more docile. Will's favorite cousin, "Bain" Colby, would be next, then all the other deceased writers in the family.

I need to find Will a high-paying job before he drives me into bankruptcy, but now I am fully committed to realizing his dream. He promises to resurrect me, after I myself expire.

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Author

William Sims Bainbridge (wsbainbridge@gmail.com) is a sociologist, computer programmer, and information scientist who does research on technological innovation, religious movements, and virtual worlds; he currently directs Human-Centered Computing in the computer science directorate of the National Science Foundation, Arlington, VA.

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Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1378727.1378750


©2008 ACM  0001-0782/08/0900  $5.00

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