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New artificial intelligence exhibit at the WWII Museum blends past and future

Voices from the Front" at The National World War II Museum. (National WWII Museum/Released)

“I didn’t know I was that good lookin’,” quipped 98-year-old Navy veteran Tolly Fletcher, gazing at a full-sized video version of himself that’s part of a new high-tech attraction called “Voices from the Front” at The National World War II Museum.

Fletcher is one of the 18 former sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marines and civilians who sat for lengthy video interviews about their experiences in the global war that ended almost 80 years ago.

Those interviews are the raw material of the interactive display that allows museum visitors to converse with real vets, or at least their virtual doppelgangers.

Here’s how it works. You sit down at a touch-screen panel and select one of the servicemen, servicewomen or other interviewees from a list. Like a genie appearing from a lamp, the person appears on a large digital screen. Using an embedded microphone, you then ask the apparition a question, such as “How did you get the Purple Heart?” or “What was your job in the Army?”

A voice recognition device identifies key words in the inquiry. Then artificial intelligence matches the words to an appropriate portion of the interview. If all goes as intended, the video avatar patiently provides an answer as if it were a real, flesh and blood person.

“It’s kind of weird talking to yourself,” Fletcher said with a smile, as he watched his video twin on the screen during a ribbon-cutting reception for the exhibit on Wednesday. In the course of his recorded interview, Fletcher discussed the Allied invasion of North Africa, the colossal D-Day Invasion, and the cat-and-mouse battle against Hitler’s U-boats in the North Atlantic.

Incredible moments

He was just a teenager when he witnessed those incredible historical moments. And despite the decades, he’s still got a little bad-boy bravado in him. Asked to reveal the secret to living almost a whole century, the Walker Louisiana resident first admitted that he simply comes from a long-lived family, with siblings who’ve survived for as long as he has and longer. But, he confided, the real key to longevity is “chasing wild women.”

At this writing, the “Voices from the Front” interactive display is still a little hit-and-miss. The video veterans don’t always seem to comprehend the question being asked. “I don’t have an answer to that question,” is a common response. But, as Peter Crean, the WWII Museum’s vice president of education, explained, the AI system is still “learning.” As it receives more questions it will be able to refine and speed up its responses.

Fletcher gets it. Despite his age, he’s not out of touch with technology. He said he has a smart TV that “knows what I like.” He suspects the “Voices from the Front” interactive exhibit will eventually know what it needs to know too.

Crean said the great thing is that the interactive exhibit is completely authentic. Everything is based on what the veterans themselves recalled. There’s “nothing adulterated about it,” he said.

There was a time when visitors to the WWII Museum could count on actual veterans who volunteered to greet visitors and answer questions, Crean said. But the pages of the calendar continue to turn, and there are just fewer and fewer WWII veterans left.

‘The right technology’

The attraction that captures the living warriors so well is “the right technology at the right time,” Crean said. It ensures that visitors will hear vets speak even after they’re gone, maybe forever. Imagine, Crean said, if you could talk to someone who fought at Gettysburg.

In the midst of the hubbub of Wednesday’s reception, George Hardy shook hands and posed for pictures. Hardy was a fighter pilot with the famous Tuskegee Airmen squadron. He was so young at the time, he said, that he flew powerful Warhawk and Thunderbolt fighter planes before he’d ever driven a car.

The high tech of that time, he said, was radar, which made it possible to spot German planes before they made it to their targets.

Like Fletcher, Hardy marveled at the video screen where his likeness breathed and blinked as it seemed to wait for someone to ask a question. Hardy said he was impressed that the avatars are never completely still. “It makes it more realistic,” he said. “It’s not like some dummy up there just vocalizing.”

Plus, he said, the answers that his other self uttered were “longer than you’d think; not just yes and no.”

Relics and mementos

The “Voices from the Front” kiosk stands in the center of a new National WWII Museum section called the Malcolm S. Forbes Rare and Iconic Artifacts Gallery, named for the publisher who served in the war.

The walls are lined with compelling displays of relics from long-ago battles and mementos from the civilian side of the war, including everything from an iconic example of the ubiquitous M-1 rifle, to a one-of-a-kind wedding gown made from nylon parachute cloth, to the jacket of the pilot who flew the plane that dropped one of the atomic bombs on Japan, bringing the war to a close.

The combination of the cool, futuristic, AI experience and the decidedly traditional collection of antique artifacts perfectly captures the span of years since the war that so changed the world. The Iconic Artifacts Gallery may be relatively small, but it could be a museum in itself.


(c) 2024 The Advocate

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