Software, soldiers, and the future of ghosts.

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 12 2009 12:13 PM

Night of the Living Dad

Software, soldiers, and the future of ghosts.

Don't be frightened, but ghosts are about to become real.

The instigator, as usual, is the U.S. Department of Defense. Last year, DoD unveiled the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a project "to reconstruct new skin, muscles and tendons, and even ears, noses and fingers." With that, generations of parental wisdom went out the window. I'd just been telling my 5-year-old daughter to take care of her adult teeth because they were the last real teeth she'd ever have. But that's not true anymore. Our kids will be able to get new teeth, fingers, and toes.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Soon, they'll be able to see ghosts, too. For ages, we've been telling children that ghosts aren't real. But DoD has just put out a request for proposals to create what are, in effect, virtual ghosts. Another truism of parenting is about to become untrue.

The announcement, from the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, requests "a highly interactive PC or web-based application to allow family members to verbally interact with virtual renditions of deployed Service Members." The application must "produce compelling interactive dialogue between a Service member and their families … 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.' "

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Critics call the proposal "creepy" and "dystopian." They point out that no avatar can substitute for a parent. They think DoD should focus instead on "real-time video computer connection" between deployed personnel and their kids.

But what DoD is requesting will become real because it's possible and because the agency has correctly identified a human need. Kids want to see, hear, and talk to their parents. They need reassurance. And much of what they need to hear—"I love you," "Sleep tight," "Be good for Mommy"—is routine. It's easy to script these lines. If you're the parent, you can visually record them. Then you just need software to convert your recordings into 3-D video or, better yet, an interactive hologram.

The military's proposal blends the attachment of sentiment with the detachment of technology. It seeks to "allow a child to receive comfort from being able to have simple, virtual conversations" with a parent and  "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." Affection, support, reassurance, comfort. These are basic needs. But the point of the program is to separate the fulfillment of these needs from the person who normally delivers them—in short, to disembody your loved one.

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.

And that, I suspect, is where this technology is heading. Real-time video is better than virtual rendition, but only while Daddy's alive. After that, it's time to bring out the home movies. If you still need to talk to him, you can pray at night and imagine that he's listening. Or you can use your PC to get what DoD calls "the illusion of a natural (but simple) interaction."

Let's be honest. We're all still kids inside. We need parents for emotional reasons as well as physical ones. And all of us in this generation are doomed to old-fashioned disembodiment. Atheism and modern science don't stop us from secretly talking to our loved ones after they're gone. What if you could really do that? What if you could keep a virtual rendition of your mom smiling and conveying words of love and reassurance?

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.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. The Vatican's misunderstanding of the female reproductive system. 2. Who's to blame when people are killed for their organs? 3. Face transplants for the " socially crippled.")

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