The Virtual Ghost

February 16, 1994|By RICHARD LOUV

SAN DIEGO — O thou, the early author of my



Whose youthful spirit, in me


Doth with his lofty and


shrill-sounding throat

Awake the snorting like a horse.

--Text generated with artificial intelligence, from what computer scientists call ''the Shakespeare corpus.''

San Diego.--Sometimes worlds converge, explode and create new one. Lately, I have been wondering what will happen when the worlds of high definition television (or, better yet, the three-dimensional hologram), digital sound, artificial intelligence and theories of virtual reality converge with the yearnings of the human heart.

Here is one possibility: the virtual ghost.

This notion first appeared to me (an apparition!) after interviewing a series of cutting-edge technophiles and thinkers, including Byron Reeves, a professor of communications at Stanford, one of the few people in the country studying how enhanced images are processed by the human mind.

Mr. Reeves suggests that the power of highly realistic electronic images may be even greater than we know. His studies, which have focused on relatively low-tech media, show that if you look at an old black-and-white photo of your mother or anyone else you have known, you will react to it physiologically, subconsciously ''almost identically as you would if the person were standing in front of you.'' Add sound and motion to the image, he says, and your ''reactions are all that more complete.''

So what happens when we add newly available and evolving technological wizardry? Here enters -- with a click and a hum -- the virtual ghost.

Imagine this. You'll be able to bring back the dead. Kind of.

Already, cryogenics companies around California will freeze Grandma's head. Why not digitize her instead? In the future, Grandma or Dad or Mom or anyone else who wants to leave behind a special legacy, will drive over to Virtual Ghost Inc. (an imaginary company, so far). The company techs will record and store Mom's image and the sound and patterns of her voice in digital form. Using an artificial-intelligence program, the company techs will ask her a long series of questions; in this way, her favorite phrases, life history and family stories (including some that she has never told) will be preserved. The program also will record Mom's thought patterns, her logic, the predictability -- or unpredictability -- of her emotions.

Mom dies, but her virtual ghost remains. From that point on, her relatives and descendants can sit on the family-room couch, slip on a virtual-reality helmet and ask Mom questions, hold extended conversation with her on just about any topic, including those wounds that went unspoken in life.

Setting aside, for a moment, the creepiness of this idea, I called Robert Hecht-Nielsen, chair of the board of HNC Inc., a San Diego company specializing in artificial-intelligence software. Mr. Hecht-Nielsen is one of the country's leading experts on neural networks, the branch of artificial intelligence that allows a computer to learn on its own when fed raw data.

''If you just wanted an image that moved and did not speak, that could be done today,'' he said. ''Using existing technology, you could also carry on a dialogue with it.'' Though the apparition's intelligence level would not be high, it would express itself with some of Mom's idiosyncrasies intact.

I asked him when he thought science will be able to create a full-fledged, 3-D, conversational virtual ghost who could think as Mom might have thought.

''One that would be convincing to a child, I'd say in three or four decades,'' said Mr. Hecht-Nielsen. ''But it might take hundreds of years to create one that adults could turn to for advice.''

Maybe, but he may be overestimating our needs. Adults use Ouija boards to ask advice from the dead. In any case, assuming a few major breakthroughs, virtual ghosts might be lurking around the corner.

The possibility raises questions.

Would your conversation with Virtual Mom be fundamentally different from the one you have with her, daily, in your own head?

Could she be programmed to age as she might have in real life?

Could we, at some point, pour everything that Lincoln wrote into a neural network, digitize all the photographs ever taken of him, and produce a Virtual Abe? (Scientists might compensate for unknown information by adding cultural detail from Lincoln's time, just as frog DNA was used to fill out the missing pieces of dinosaur DNA in Jurassic Park.)

Could a virtual meeting of virtual ghosts be arranged? For example, could the Pentagon bring Lincoln, Napoleon and Janis Joplin together for an evening of music and military strategizing?

Mr. Hecht-Nielsen says that bringing back the famously dead is already trendy in academe. After we spoke, he faxed me the above stanzas of faux-Shakespeare; these were created by pouring the Bard's work into a computer and asking it to produce a new work. Similar programs have composed music that Bach might have produced had he lived three extra centuries.

Meanwhile, back to Mom, now preserved in silicon or some other magic sand of the future. If you could speak to her virtual ghost, what would you ask? What would she say? what would you hear in your heart?

Richard Louv is the author of ''FatherLove'' and ''Childhood's Future.'' He is also a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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