Bad Idea of the Day: Creating "Virtual Parents" for Kids of U.S. Troops

By Melissa Lafsky | January 7, 2009 12:24 pm

baby at computerThe Department of Defense has apparently grown a conscience. After nearly six years of deploying troops to Iraq, many of them parents, the DOD is acknowledging that kids are spending years without a mother or father around. And, given that mental health issues are already taking a severe toll on Iraq vets, putting stress on marriages and disrupting lives, it’s only logical that children are getting caught in the crossfire, so to speak.

So, rather than oh, say, ban repeated deployments or lift stop-loss orders, the government has decided to nip the absent-parent problem in the bud by creating… computerized parents. According to a proposal solicitation (via InformationWeek) on the Department of Defense Small Business Innovation Web site, the DOD is looking for a “highly interactive PC- or Web-based application to allow family members to verbally interact with ‘virtual’ renditions of deployed Service Members.”(Insert “Hello, DAD”—”Hello, Little Dave” joke here.)

The proposal outlines the idea as follows:

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”, [sic] or “I miss you”, [sic] 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.

In other words, we should make computers that lie to small children by pretending to be their parents.

The DOD argues that this “simulated mommy” program would work for/appeal to kids because “[o]ver 80 percent of American children between the ages of three and five regularly use computers, and 83 percent of families have a computer in their home.” Of course, that’s really the rub now, isn’t it: Kids today are remarkably computer-savvy, and are thus more able to tell the difference between an AI simulation and their dad. And we won’t even touch the potential for disaster this idea has should the actual parent never wind up coming home

Related:
RB: Out of a Job? Electronic Warfare Firms Are Hiring!
RB: Over a Year After YouTube Ban, Military Launches “TroopTube”

Image: iStockPhoto

MORE ABOUT: Iraq, military

Comments (58)

  1. Scott

    While this is clearly a bad idea, comments like “So, rather than oh, say, ban repeated deployments or lift stop-loss orders” ignore the reality the military is dealing with. It is simply too small to properly handle the wars it needs to fight and should be expanded.

  2. Wow, that is absoultely the stupidest, dumbest, and the most f.cked up thing i’ve ever heard. I am rubbing my eyes, and it is still there.

  3. Andre

    @Scott

    ” It is simply too small to properly handle the wars it needs to fight and should be expanded.”

    The military had the biggest budget around a trillion dollars a year. How can it possibly expand any more than it already has?

  4. And here I was, thinking that it would be easier for them to give service members free Skype accounts (or similar), but that’s just crazy-talk.

  5. jacko

    Yes – it’s fucked up. But taking parents away from their kids is fucked up too. Kids without parents are at a statistical disadvantage regardless, so I don’t see how this could make their situation any worse. And considering the kinds of things that unsupervised kids are looking at on the internet, this is not so bad.

  6. K

    Wow! Touchy subject. As a military brat, I’ve experienced prolonged periods where my dad was away. (Although, thankfully, we didn’t have major wars during that time.) What is weird is not the absence, but the re-presence of a person. I’ve always felt a little bit disjointed from my family, although they’re really important to me. The effect is more pronounced when I’m with my extended family; cousins, aunts and the like who lived in the US. (I lived abroad for most of my childhood up until my adulthood.) When you grow apart from someone, it’s like there’s really no connection there at all, even if you know you’re blood related.

    I wonder how the parent, mom or dad, would feel like leaving their children when they called them “mommy” or “daddy,” then returning to “mom” or “dad.” Will they miss the things they never had a chance to notice?

    I think that these virtual parents will be a detriment to both the children and the service member. When the parent actually comes home, the child might be surprised to find that mom or dad is really quite articulate. For a short while, you can fool little children. That’s why Blues Clues is so fun. However, I think that the troops will be deployed to Iraq for years and years, and an emphasis on real time communication is going to be critical. This is basically a long distance relationship on steroids. (Has anyone tried dating someone in another country, in another timezone?)

    The best thing is just to have mom or dad near by. And the worst thing is how people at home step up to the plate to take that role when mom or dad is away.

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