Last week the BBC reported on an experimental venture of the European Commission called ‘beaming’. The idea is this: given the time, expense, and environmental impact of business, medical, and other types of travel, is it possible to replace the actual presence of another person by an avatar (robotic or virtual) manipulated by the would-be traveller? In order to accomplish this futuristic feat, researchers have developed a body suit that reads the movements of the wearer and translates those into corresponding movements in the avatar. The avatar is outfitted with microphones and cameras to give the wearer of the suit a 3D view and soundscape of the other location. The hope is that, as the technology develops, business persons will be able to conduct business virtually, surgeons will be able to perform complex medical procedures on patients on the other side of the globe, far flung families could keep in touch with one another, gamers could collaborate on games in ways heretofore impossible—the possibilities are nearly limitless.
The creators and developers of this technology hope that ‘BEAMING will for the first time give people a real sense of physically being in a remote location with other people, and vice versa—without actually travelling’. This pursuit holds a lot of promise and makes sense economically, however it raises questions about the limits of technology. Can a virtual traveller replace a real traveller?
Having said that, I think as development moves forward, we will all be amazed at the realistic quality of the avatars. It will probably be something akin to the first time someone sees an animatronic representation of a dinosaur, dead president, or other long since expired notable. But I believe there is something which cannot be escaped: no matter how realistic the avatar looks or moves or sounds, it will always be little more than an expensive and highly capable puppet. This, in reality, is what is occurring in beaming. Expensive puppets are being developed that can be manipulated by puppeteers at a great distance.
Now, don’t get me wrong, puppets can be amazing. Need I point any further than to Elmo? In the best puppets there is the spark of life that belies the fact that they are, in fact, being manipulated by a person. And, as such, the essence of that puppeteer is conveyed through the puppet. But the puppet is not and never will be the puppeteer.
In some ways, I see this whole pursuit as reminiscent of the building of a modern day tower of Babel. The people of Babel believed that they had the technical know-how and drive to build a tower so impressive that it would be able to bridge the gap between earth and heaven. The goal of the developers of beaming is, perhaps, less audacious but somewhat similar. They are seeking to use technology to bridge the gap of space between far removed individuals.
Scripture indicates that the gap between heaven and earth can only be bridged and has been bridged by Jesus who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking on the very form of man. Jesus allowed himself to be enfleshed in the clothes of humanity in order to reveal God to humanity and to redeem and renew the same through His death and resurrection. In response to the charge that He was little more than a human puppet in the guise of a human (a divine avatar), the Scriptures reveal him to be fully God and fully man.
In a way, the current attempts to ‘beam’ ourselves are a little like the incarnation in reverse. God, who as Spirit is omnipresent, limited himself to particularity in the person of Jesus and we, feeling constrained by our inherent particularity, are seeking to be present in more than one place at once. Our attempts may get close (Babel’s tower may have touched the clouds), but, ultimately, will they (like the tower) fall short? What impact will this pursuit have on our understanding of the nature of humanity? What other theological considerations does this raise?