The Pentagon soon will begin paying monthly bonuses of up to $500 to troops barred from leaving the military because they're needed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A fatter paycheck will take some of the sting out of the military's high demand for troops and the resulting stop-loss policy. But it won't do anything to dry the tears of soldiers' children distraught over Dad's or Mom's absence. Now the Pentagon wants to create computerized hologram-like moms and dads that can talk with the kids when their parents are deployed far from home and beyond telephone or e-mail contact.
But don't expect the hologram scene from Star Wars where Princess Leia appears to ask, "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi." The Pentagon is still looking for the right technique and technology at the right price. The parameters are simple: lonely kids should be able to "boot up" Dad or Mom on their home computer. "The child should be able to have a simulated conversation with a parent about generic, everyday topics," reads the Defense Department's solicitation seeking companies to develop the concept. "For instance, a child may get a response from saying 'I love you,' or 'I miss you,' or 'Good night.'" The goal: reassuring little ones whose parent has suddenly disappeared. "The children don't quite understand Mommy or Daddy being deployed," says Navy commander Russell Shilling, the experimental 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." (See pictures of U.S. troops' 5 years in Iraq.)
The Pentagon has long recognized that keeping families calm back home makes for better warriors overseas. "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," says the Pentagon solicitation. "We are looking for innovative applications that explore and harness the power of advanced interactive multimedia computer technologies to produce compelling interactive dialogue between service members and their families via a PC- or Web-based application using video footage or high-resolution 3-D rendering."
The requirements for voice recognition and a customized, family-specific nature make the idea technically challenging. Not to mention the need for artificial intelligence to respond appropriately to what the child might say. "The application should incorporate an AI that allows for flexibility in language comprehension to give the illusion of a natural (but simple) interaction," the solicitation says.
The Pentagon's Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury wants deploying parents to record their end of conversations before they ship out. Shilling's proposal says more than 80% of kids between the ages of 3 and 5 in the U.S. regularly use computers and that communicating with a "parent" via one would "capture their interest and imagination." Companies interested in participating have until Jan. 14 to tell the Pentagon just how they would do it. Sometime around April, the Pentagon plans to award as many as three contracts of up to $100,000 each to begin work on what it calls its Virtual Dialogue Application for Families of Deployed Service Members.
Catherine Caldwell-Harris, a psychology professor at Boston University, says humans have always sought more realistic images of loved ones far away. "It used to be artist sketches, then photos, then video," she says, "and this may just be the next step to facilitate our memories." While she applauds the research that will be required to develop the application, she's unsure about kids' reactions. "How would a young child understand an artificial-intelligence program that is a simulacrum of their parent?" she asks.
Blogs have been asking similar questions, calling the idea "creepy" and wondering what the impact would be on a military kid whose parent is killed in action but continues to "live on" in cyberspace. Shilling says if the military discovers the idea is too challenging or won't benefit the troops and their families, the project won't go forward. "Part of the research is to look at its safety and efficacy," he says. "We'd never put anything out until we are certain that it is good for the family."
Spouses left on the home front also might have mixed feelings. "Would the AI spouse be a nice stimulant to my own memories?" Caldwell-Harris wonders. "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'?" It's obvious that the real breakthrough will come when the military can deploy parental holograms and let Mom and Dad stay at home.