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US Military Designing Virtual Parents

In what is at once both a wondrous idea, and a dark disaster waiting to occur, the US department of defence has initiated a project to design virtual reality based, artificial intelligence surrogate mothers and fathers for the children of deployed military personnel.

Original Proposal: Virtual Dialogue Application for Families of Deployed Service Members

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The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury recognizes that family outreach and advocacy is pivotal for both the psychological health of the family and the resilience of the Service Member. Deployments put stress on the entire family, especially small children and communication is key.

The ability to reach out and communicate with loved ones from areas of conflict is better than at any time in history. Nevertheless, the stresses of deployment might be softened if spouses and especially children could conduct simple conversations with their loved ones in immediate times of stress or prolonged absence. Historically, families have derived comfort and support from photographs or mementos, but current technology SHOULD allow for more personal interactive messages of support. Over 80% of American children between the ages of three and five regularly use computers, and 83% of families have a computer in their home.

So, computer-based applications would resonate with children and capture their interest and imagination. The challenge is to design an application that would allow a child to receive comfort from being able to have simple, virtual conversations with a parent who is not available "in-person". We are looking for innovative applications that explore and harness the power of advanced interactive multimedia computer technologies to produce compelling interactive dialogue between a Service member and their families via a pc- or web-based application using video footage or high-resolution 3-D rendering.

The child should be able to have a simulated conversation with a parent about generic, everyday topics. For instance, a child may get a response from saying "I love you", or "I miss you", or "Good night mommy/daddy."

This is a technologically challenging application because it relies on the ability to have convincing voice-recognition, artificial intelligence, and the ability to easily and inexpensively develop a customized application tailored to a specific parent. We are seeking development of a tool which can be used to help families (especially, children) cope with deployments by providing a means to have simple verbal interactions with loved ones for re-assurance, support, affection, and generic discussion when phone and internet conversations are not possible. The application should incorporate an AI that allows for flexibility in language comprehension to give the illusion of a natural (but simple) interaction. The current solicitation is not aiming to build entertainment, but a highly accurate and advanced simulation platform.

Voice-recognition and voice-interaction are required. The User Interface is a critical component for this program. Application must be user friendly and application must be easy to install and maintain. Verbal interactions should be as normal as current technology will allow. Proven track record for creating similar types of applications is desired, but not required. Development plans should include the use of trained psychological health and family advocacy experts with experience providing services to military populations. Project MUST include discussion of how personal information would be collected, recorded, and rendered as well as address issues about information content and complexity of proposed simulation application. If using a web-based application, security and maintenance issues must be addressed.

Application must run on typical family-owned computer systems.

The Issues

Whilst the goal is clearly noble, as the outline above reports, the resultant creation is a very dangerous idea, and children are perhaps the worst potential audience for the first attempt of this type, as such by their very nature, tend to be less than fully developed emotionally and mentally. There is a very real danger, nay, it is a prerequisite of the system, that the children begin to bond mentally and emotionally with the virtual parent. On tours of extended duration, the child may have contact with their actual parents once a week or so., Yet, be interacting with the virtual parents on a second by second basis.

What happens when their true parents finally return? Which is seen as the family member? The physical, or the virtual? Whilst this researcher admits to being fascinated by the idea, a full scale trial across the armed forces of a large nation seems an insane way to go about the task.

There is also the danger that such a system if available, will be utilised by unwilling or busy parents as a nanny service, a surrogate parent when the actual parents are physically about, but distant, or even uncaring. Whilst it is true that a computer mediated expert system with appropriate social interaction sub systems, and almost a synthetic consciousness in outward appearance, would perhaps be a better support for emotional distress and questioning issues than the distanced parents, the first attempts should perhaps be aimed at friendship, or kindly relative, and not as parents.

Under the current state of technology, and for the near future at least (~ 10 - 15 years) it is not possible to interface the sensory pathways between a virtual entity and physical child to the point where the AI could look after a child's physical needs, examine a skinned knee, dry tears, or offer a hug when such is sorely needed. As a direct result, there will form a deficit of such physical interaction during part of the individual's most formative years.

A further item to consider, is what happens if a child's true parents are killed on a tour of duty? What is the situation then? Obviously the military has other procedures in place for that eventuality, but, in separating the child from the second, virtual parents, moving them in with a new surrogate family, does the child effectively have their parents die twice, to them? Once for the distant parents, and once for separation from the virtual surrogates, for the new family to start off clean?

For if they are not separated from the virtual parents, such a bereavement would undoubtedly push the child closer to the virtual parent, and perceived closeness found there, even if the virtual parent was not truly a conscious entity - which current technology is not close to creating. This tightened bond would make bonding with a new family unit all the more difficult.

Further Reading

Virtual Dialogue Application for Families of Deployed Service Members

Staff Comments


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