The U.S. Department of Defense is looking to develop virtual parents to comfort children when moms and dads on active duty aren't available to talk.
In a solicitation for proposals posted on the department's Small Business Innovation Research Web site, the military says it's seeking to "develop a highly interactive PC- or Web-based application to allow family members to verbally interact with 'virtual' renditions of deployed Service Members."
"The child should be able to have a simulated conversation with a parent about generic, everyday topics," the solicitation says. "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."
While Skype or similar technologies might seem like a more cost-effective and immediately available solution, Defense rejects that possibility, noting in a Q&A posted below the solicitation that the purpose of the project is to help children cope with the absence of a parent when Internet and phone communication are not an option.
In a blog post, Catherine Caldwell-Harris, associate professor of psychology at Boston University, suggests the project would make a "great background-story for a dystopian novel."
"I confess I am skeptical of the utility of an artificial intelligence program which mimics parental dialogue," she wrote. "Is there any evidence that children age 3-5 will understand that the avatar on the screen is supposed to be their parent? I wouldn't envy the job of a mother who has to train her 3-year-old to comprehend this."
In a phone interview, Caldwell-Harris added, "You can rapidly speculate on how this could be very damaging for children."
At the same time, she tempered her skepticism, saying that there are clearly potential uses for artificial intelligence that deserve further research funding, like real-time language translation or using avatars to teach foreign languages.
"There is a place for AI [research] dollars," she said. "But I think this was a project that didn't get thought out very well."
"The actual solicitation doesn't seem strongly grounded in any behavioral science," she added, noting that the proposal seemed to have been put together by someone who Googled a few supportive articles.
"If the military is genuinely interested in helping military families, why don't they just provide more money for social services that we already know work?" she said.