As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, the Pentagon is investigating new technologies to help families deal with long-term absences, including computer software that will let children interact with "hologram-like" representations of parents who are deployed overseas.
The defense department has begun to solicit companies interested in developing the technology, which it says should be able to offer children "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.'" The software will require voice recognition and must be customizable for individual families, and be able to give "the illusion of a natural (but simple) interaction."
"The children don't quite understand mommy or daddy being deployed," explained Commander Russell Shilling, a Navy psychologist overseeing the program. "That kind of interaction - the need to say goodnight or to continue to feel connected to a parent - is very important."
The technology may be cutting-edge, but the concept is also undeniably game-like. "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 solicitation says. The military is accepting submissions from companies until January 14, after which it plans to award three contracts of up to $100,000 each to begin work on the project.
Some observers have expressed concern over the impact on young children of "virtual parents" who continue to live on after the real parent has been killed in action, but Shilling said the risks and benefits of the technology are still being examined, and that the project will be shut down if it proves excessively problematic. "Part of the research is to look at its safety and efficacy," he said. "We'd never put anything out until we are certain that it is good for the family."
And while Boston University Professor of Psychology Catherine Caldwell-Harris expressed support for the research, she questioned how both kids and other family members might react to it. "How would a young child understand an artificial-intelligence program that is a simulacrum of their parent?" she said. "Would the A.I. spouse be a nice stimulant to my own memories? Or would I even get more angry at the Army and think, 'They're just trying to fob off this fancy technology on me so they can send my husband out on his next tour'?"