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The Haunted Computer

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January 8, 2009

On January 6, Slate featured an interesting report by William Saletan concerning a Defense Department proposal request for a new computer application to help children of deployed service personnel in coping with the lack of parental communication.  The concept is described as a “Virtual Dialogue Application for Families of Deployed Service Members”.  It supposedly would provide an opportunity for children (within the specified age range of 3 and 5 years old) to have a “virtual” conversation with a deployed parent who (for whatever reason) would be unavailable for telephone or on-line contact.  The idea is to have a video image of the parent (possibly high-resolution and 3-D) available to “converse” with the child.  The application is to be either PC-based or web-based.  Here is how it was described on the Defense Department’s TechMatch website:

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.

Upon reading about this, the first question that came to my mind concerned situations where the parent unfortunately is killed in the line of duty.  Is the child to continue using this application to have “virtual conversations” with a deceased parent?  Would that be healthy?  William Saletan voiced a similar concern in his article:

The deployed parent still has a body, of course.  But, being deployed, he’s at risk of becoming disembodied the old-fashioned way.  At that point, real-time video is no longer an option, and the language of the DoD project — to provide verbal interactions “when phone and internet conversations are not possible” — takes on a whole new meaning.

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I’m not saying this kind of ghost is for everyone.  Some of us don’t like our parents.  Some of us find the idea of keeping them around bizarre or sacrilegious.  But I dare you to tell a child who has lost her father in Iraq or Afghanistan that she can’t keep a virtual rendition of him to help her go to sleep.  And I dare you to stop the millions of others who will want ghosts of their own when today’s military project becomes, once again, tomorrow’s mass market.

The reaction to this idea from those involved in the mental health field should be interesting.  Whether or not the military ever embraces such a computer application, Saletan’s point about the “mass market” deserves further pondering.  There will be the inevitable pornographic variations on this project’s theme.  Nevertheless, could such an application be configured in other ways to be of use to adults?  How about “Virtual Seance” — a website that allows users to “communicate” with dead historical figures or celebrities?  Will living celebrities (or, should I say, “has beens”) have websites where fee-paying fans can have a “virtual conversation” with that celebrity?  Will politicians use this technology to allow their constituents “virtual face time” with the pol to vent their spleens?

Healthy or not, this computer application seems like an idea that will not quickly go away.