The Dystopia Derby

You return from war, or maybe you’re still fighting it. Either something in your psyche has gone dark or you’re too dazed to tell. You are told to seek help and you agree. You don’t feel guilty or embarrassed; the least the government can do for you is give you someone to talk to. You schedule an appointment or one is scheduled for you. You already feel lighter. The date approaches. The date arrives. You… turn on your webcam. Hmm, fine. You meet your doctor. Ok. Wait — no.

Ellie is an avatar, a virtual therapist developed at USC with funding from DARPA, the Defense Department’s advanced research center. And “people love interacting with her,” says Louis-Philippe Morency, a research assistant professor at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Morency has been working with Ellie — part of the university’s SimSensei project — for several years now. In that, he has helped to build a program capable of reading and responding to human emotion in real time. And capable, more to the point, of offering those responses via a human-like animation.

Why not just replace military recruiters with robots? Why not close the loop all the way and let robot therapists conspire with drones to hide violence from their operators? It’s as if the people nominally in charge of preventing dystopia turned around and started racing toward it all at once, because getting there seemed inevitable and nobody wanted to arrive second. Who will win, and how may I demonstrate my undying loyalty?