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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
(Paragraphs added for the sake of clarity)
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
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.
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.
Dialogue Application for Families of Deployed Service Members