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June 14, 2007

US Government funds virtual reality research

News that the NSF is spending half a million dollars to improve our ability to create a virtual reality avatar is bizarre enough. Add the info that the avatar is intended to represent a senior NSF official and we start checking the calendar on the assumption that this is April 1. Or the Onion. Or the Twilight Zone. Since it’s June already and the World Futures Society does not publish the Onion, it looks like the Twilight Zone after all. But read it for yourself. From the story:

For centuries, humans have been trying to beat mortality through technology, employing such fanciful (if chilling) methods as cryonics, or the freezing of cadavers in the hope that science might one day stumble upon a cure for all ills. Now, the National Science Foundation has awarded a half-million-dollar grant to the universities of Central Florida at Orlando and Illinois at Chicago to explore how researchers might use artificial intelligence, archiving, and computer imaging to create convincing, digital versions of real people, a possible first step toward virtual immortality.

“The goal is to combine artificial intelligence with the latest advanced graphics and video game-type technology to enable us to create historical archives of people beyond what can be achieved using traditional technologies such as text, audio, and video footage,” says Jason Leigh of the University of Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory.

Leigh’s lab will attempt to store and then digitize the appearance, mannerisms, voice, and (some of) the knowledge of a senior program manager from the National Science Foundation who is known for his institutional savvy. The researchers hope to then assemble the data into a “virtual person” or avatar that will be able to respond to questions and behave in a manner representative of the test subject.

Not that we should refuse to research on AI, nanotechnology, and avatars; that is not my point. But we need to talk about it first. Where is the great public debate about the implications of these technologies? We are shooting first and asking questions later. And for watchers of the National Science Foundation, this may be no surprise. The NSF’s flagrant disregard of Congressional concern that we look long and hard at the ethical and societal dimensions of such research – especially artificial intelligence in the context of the National Nanotechnology Initiative – is slowly becoming a scandal.

But we can always ask the NSF avatar for the answer.

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