Image Isn't Everything

Imagine it's 1950. You're at a Sears Roebuck department store.

Noise and flickering light bounce from a corner of the display floor. They come from this new talking picture-box you've heard about - television.

Curious, you wander over, take a look, scratch your head.

Entertaining? Informative? Distracting? All of the above.

But most noticeable about that first TV? It's on. Definitely on.

Fast forward to now. But bear in mind it could be 1950 again. Something new has just been turned on. Definitely on. "Virtual idols," interactive computer-generated software images, are rearing their electronic heads.

These virtual "personalities" are about to change our culture the way television did. It is not journalistic hype to suggest this. The artificial intelligence designed into these anthropomorphic images will inform our most private thoughts, teach our children, guide us onto trains and airplanes, even keep us company.

What are they? For starters, read Nicole Gaouette's cover story (at right) and ponder the implications. She asks how these computer-generated mental constructs of the ideal (and perhaps not so ideal) man and woman will evolve. They are only in the tadpole stage, she says.

Back to our analogy with television. From the first moment parents realized the sponsor of a television show was making a direct sales pitch to little Johnny and Suzy right in their living room - to buy something, be somebody, do something - doubts were sown about the "miracle" of television.

Imagine virtual idols, the pixel pixies of software designers, and advertisers linked up. They would be to shoppers what the sirens who alluringly called to Odysseus were to sailors. When sailing past them, the creator of the Trojan horse had the foresight to stop his crew's ears with wax.

Consider this scenario: At the dinner table, a seventh-grader informs her parents that she had a really, really "way cool" talk with Ricky, the virtual songwriter today on her computer. Ricky was "confiding" for a major fashion designer, and he wanted to know what clothes she was buying for back-to-school. He knew what "everyone" was going to wear.

Or this one: The digitized representative of a major airline - present as a hologram on a "gift" calling card presented with the purchase of plane tickets - already knows about a couple's honeymoon to Barbados and suggests a hotel and restaurants based on their retail history from credit-card purchases stored in separate databases.

Right now our access to virtual idols (or their access to us) is in the "only two channels available" stage. But we will be at cable-ready quicker than we moved from black-and-white TV to color. Digitized creations will enter our lives able to change and adapt autonomously with artificial intelligence.

Where will parents, teachers, journalists, legislators, anyone, find the wax to stop up the call of these cyber-sirens?

* Comments or questions? Write to Ideas Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail

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