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“Virtual” meetings, or space exploration by telepresence, shouldn’t be considered lesser versions of being there in person.

The trouble with being virtual

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Allow me a brief but gentle rant on an important issue of vocabulary relating to space exploration.

The ambiguity of the word “virtual” confronts a choice about the nature of human presence, and whether human presence can be emplaced electronically.

We’ve all seen it. Very recently, in fact. The Asteroid Synthesis Workshop at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston was advertised as allowing “virtual” participation. The last annual Lunar Science Forum at the Ames Research Center, because of agency travel restrictions, was held (quite successfully, I should add) as an entirely “virtual” forum. The onetime Lunar Science Institute there now figures itself as a “Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute,” one of many self-styled “virtual institutes.” NASA Explorer Schools run a “virtual” campus, and there are even a number of “virtual” universities, where I guess you get “virtually” educated. Of course, you can join up in “virtual” tours of space shuttles, JPL, Vesta, and Saturn, in which participation is pretty much just watching a narrated movie. But “virtual tour” sounds more slick.

Of course, what “virtual” means in these cases is that participation is remote, and electronically facilitated. In such meetings, you can hear and see people talk, perhaps better than you could if you were sitting in front of them in an auditorium. Ideally they can hear and see you as well. These marvelous new technological capabilities extend the reach of professional communication.

The historical definition of this word—“virtual” or “virtually”—is, to quote Merriam-Webster, a somewhat colloquial “very close to being something without actually being it.” A more recent definition, which is “existing or occurring on computers or on the Internet,” often implies a simulation or model. The former definition is not, however, necessarily identical to the latter, and the confusion of these two largely orthogonal definitions is potentially troublesome in forming what one could call smart communication policy.

There is no question that when I log on remotely to these meetings, my physical presence is virtual. My body isn’t really there. I’m sitting in Texas, and the speaker or speakers are in DC or California, for example. I accept that, and I appreciate the fact that I don’t have to spend days traveling to get there and back. But is the meeting itself “virtual”? Is my participation in it not actually real? Is a virtual institute itself just something simulated? Is the meeting not really quite happening if it is happening over an electronic medium? When I get a virtual tour of Vesta, does the fact that my brain is getting a tour not take precedence over the fact that my body is not?

When I talk to my daughter on the telephone, is my conversation with her a “virtual” one? (Oh, please don’t tell me that our conversation isn’t digitized and transmitted over computer networks!) When I Skype or GoogleTalk with her, is our interaction just close to being an interaction without actually being one? I’m hesitant to call my personal e-mails “virtual” communications. Can I promise to do something by e-mail, and then beg off because, after all, my assurance occurred on a computer and was therefore only “virtual”? Of course, modern automobiles have several dozen microprocessors controlling them. Most modern steering and braking systems are already computer mediated. So I would have to say that I’m driving my car “virtually.” No, I didn’t hit that pedestrian who is lying on the ground, except perhaps “virtually.” Of course, the Afghan injured by a Hellfire missile from a UAV drone would be hard pressed to accept that it was an act of “virtual” warfare. These days, Netflix and YouTube even allow me to be “virtually” entertained!

The phrase “virtual reality,” or artificial reality, is usually used to describe an immersive environment that simulates physical presence in the real world, or in imagined ones. Complete immersion may not be necessary to convey a sense of presence. While one approach to immersion is head-mounted displays, another could be just sitting in front of a computer screen.

Now, we could consider all this just lexical semantics, but I think it goes well beyond that. The ambiguity of the word “virtual” confronts a choice about the nature of human presence, and whether human presence can be emplaced electronically. Of course, our audio presence and sense of hearing have been emplaceable electronically by radio and telephone for more than a hundred years. More recently, our vision can be emplaced as well, even coupled with dexterous manipulation systems, where haptic feedback can emplace our sense of touch. Our sense of smell and taste is harder to emplace elsewhere, but researchers are predicting that capability—part of what is called cognitive computing—in less than a decade.

To the extent that human bodies can be only “virtually” on another planet, let’s not call the exploration they do there or the awareness they achieve there as “virtual,” though they may be using virtual arms, fingers, and eyes. Functionally, they’re doing real exploration.

The role of robotics and especially telerobotics in space exploration is profoundly dependent on our view of what makes for human presence. It’s easy to say that human presence is simply determined by human flesh on-site, but our newly found technological sophistication makes that “either I’m there or I’m not!” view somewhat trite and antique. A powerful justification for measuring human presence by the location of human flesh is for colonization and settlement. You’re not going to tuck your kid into bed in your Tharsis cottage “virtually.” However, colonization and settlement of the solar system is by no means an accepted national priority. Curiously, at the instigation of Representative George Brown, some verbiage was devoted to space settlement in the 1988 NASA authorization bill, but it was never heard from again on the Hill.

The implication that computer-mediated communication might be “virtual” in the sense of being not quite real is a dangerous one, in that it allows us to dismiss the power of what is called telepresence. In this respect, for space exploration, communication latency is an important consideration that can certainly lower the quality of telepresence. But mitigation of latency is another topic (see “Human spaceflight, and the reason for (almost) being there”, The Space Review, July 5, 2011).

In the spirit of semantic forgiveness and pragmatics, we could consider the ambiguity of “virtual” to be a natural part of the evolution of our language. The word is becoming less apologetic, and more an opportunistic description of the medium; an ameliorated word. This evolution is similar to that for the word “exploration,” an activity that looks decidedly different now than how history represents it to us. Space policy is littered with such evolving words. In particular, the word “presence” is of paramount importance for congressional perspectives on space exploration, as “human presence” is a foundational phrase in NASA authorization bills. Since MIT engineer Marvin Minsky introduced (Omni, 4, 45–51, 1980) the concept of “being there” in mediated environments, the facilitation of presence has been a matter of some deliberation.

Having said all this, my advice is simple. To the extent that human bodies are only “virtually” present at a meeting, let’s not demean that meeting by calling it a “virtual” one. A meeting is about more than pressing warm flesh. Functionally, it’s either a real meeting or it’s not. Real people are exercising human presence and are really communicating. To the extent that human bodies can be only “virtually” on another planet, let’s not call the exploration they do there or the awareness they achieve there as “virtual,” though they may be using virtual arms, fingers, and eyes, and I suppose leaving virtual footprints to express their human presence. Functionally, they’re doing real exploration.

As our expertise and technical sophistication in telepresence advances, the word “virtual” has become sloppily used and arguably inaccurate. The trouble with being virtual is that in many respects it isn’t. We might better refer to it as “remote participation,” and our involvement as “electronically mediated” or just “online.” It may be called teleworking, telelearning, or teleexploring. With regard to virtuosity, in doing our task skillfully, let’s call it what it is. The premise of “human presence” is not as simple as it used to be.