Snowden at TED

The Snowden-bot at TED 2014

Back in March, Edward Snowden used a virtual Google “hangout” from Russia to address a big audience at SXSW. The live stream of his talk featured Snowden’s head floating in front of an image of the U.S. Constitution.

Then his appearance onstage at TED 2014 gave him more of a physical form. Although he wasn’t really there, he was controlling a BEAM telepresence robot from his undisclosed location in Russia. He was able to navigate the robot to a spot on stage and look out at the audience as he spoke.

The Snowden-bot talked with Chris Anderson about what it means to be a whistle-blower, where the conversation about NSA surveillance and Internet freedom should be going, and what was really revealed in documents about initiatives like PRISM. If the speaking engagements keep coming, it’s only a matter of time before hologram Snowden speaks at a graduation.

In the latest news, a Snowden-bot is set up in the ACLU offices in New York City, allowing him to “hang out” with ACLU folks any time he wants to. Snowden is using a version of the BEAM robot that’s kept at the ACLU, giving him the ability to zoom around the offices and chat. If Snowden has the time, he logs on to this New York robot from his secret place in Moscow. He can use his keyboard to pilot the robot backward and forward and sideways. The first time he did this, hundreds of ACLU staffers got together and waved at him. Now there’s talk of more Snowden-bots located around the world, so he can pop in virtually wherever he wants.

Here is the most interesting — and spooky — part of the whole story. According to a Techdirt article, a German reporter, Julia Prosinger, was in the ACLU offices with one of Snowden’s attorneys, Ben Wizner. While she was interviewing Ed Snowden via the BEAM telepresence, she had a seizure. Snowden apparently both talked Wizner through what to do and then calmed Prosinger as she came to.

Suddenly, during the attempt to explain German politics, I faint. I wake up, my head lies bedded on a sand bag, my body is in the recovery position. A calm voice is coming from the screen. ‘The first fits are always the worst,’ Snowden says. I am lucky: Snowden is not only a patriot or traitor, he is also an epileptic. He instantly recognised what was happening to me. He tells me that he was only diagnosed when he was 23 years old. When he fled the US a little more than a year ago, he told his employer that he had to go away for a few weeks for treatment for his epilepsy. Then Snowden apologises for making me look at the flickering screen, it had triggered the fit, he says.

Wait until the NSA gets wind of this! Never mind Snowden’s heroic act; the fact that he can talk to anyone anywhere in the world via a robot “on the loose” will make everyone in the NSA crazy.

From what we’ve learned about Ed Snowden, he wouldn’t have brought the epilepsy incident up at all. Had Ms. Prosinger not told her story, we would likely have never heard about it. Meanwhile, the thought of Snowden’s ability to talk to anyone, anywhere in the world, via a robot he controls with his keyboard from Russia, makes ME a little crazy too, and more than a little bit excited about the future.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson of Edward Snowden speaking with Chris Anderson and Tim Berners Lee on a telepresence robot at TED (cropped from original), Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.