Creepy government project…

Title: Virtual Dialogue Application for Families of Deployed Service Members

Objective: To develop a highly interactive PC or web-based application to allow family members to verbally interact with “virtual” renditions of deployed Service Members.

This RFP from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD09-H03) floated across my desk the other day. After reading the first line I thought, “They want internet voice chat with avatars? Quit wasting my tax dollars, go download SecondLife.”

Then I kept reading. That is not the goal of the project. At all.

Description: 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 would allow a child to receive comfort from being able to have simple, virtual conversations with a parent who is not aivailable “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.

No, I don’t see any potential to scar a kid for life with this. Especially if a detached, AI “Dad” suddenly has no recollection of the existence of the family dog, or memorable recent events in the kid’s life. Or catching on that “Dad” is a fake, and for a long time after, never trusting whether he’s talking to his real parent or a computer simulation. Or, mid-conversation, the arrival of a letter apologetically informing the family that the person the kid’s currently speaking to was actually killed in combat three weeks ago.

Could the current state of AI not only fool someone into mistaking it for a human, but mistaking it for a human they’ve known intimately for their entire life? (Then again, I have known some humans that might not reliably pass a Turing test, either.)

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.

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3 Responses to “Creepy government project…”

  1. Hi. I’m a psychologist who received a query about collaborating on this project. My reaction similar to yours.
    Googled around to see if others were posting about this, didn’t find that much.

    More research on how to support family members does seem helpful. I’m also a big fan of creating AIs for things like teaching foreign languages.

  2. Brianna Phillips says:

    I believe this is very disturbing, yes children will be distressed when a parent is away, that is a natural reaction. If there is too much poking and prodding into the concept of forcibly molding these children’s emotions, then in the long run that has the implication to have even more damage, b/c these expiriences with their “parent(s)” is/are not real. Im not saying that all uses of AI are bad, but this just seems very sthinically questionable to me.

  3. Brianna Phillips says:


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