A recent post by one of my favorite milbloggers, CJ of Soldiers Perspective, is a great indication of the emerging impacts of new media technologies within the military. Of course, milblogging itself is a new–and, in my opinion, largely positive–development in the history of warfare. In CJ’s post, we also learn that the Army has developed a recruiter avatar which resides on its GoArmy.com website.
CJ conducted an “interview” with the avatar. Here are some interesting excerpts:
CJ: Do you wear boxers or briefs?
SGT STAR: That’s a question for an Internet dating service, not goarmy. Next question, please!
CJ: Sorry about that. People are just curious, you know?
SGT STAR: That’s ok, what else can i help you with?
CJ: Artificial intelligence? Isn’t that the same thing Marines are made of? [NOTE: CJ is in the Army.]
SGT STAR: I can only tell you about the Army, which is the largest and oldest of all the branches of service. It’s self-contained, well-equipped and can be deployed anywhere in the world. As the largest branch, the Army offers the most competitive enlistment options, incentives and guarantees.
CJ: Nice dodge. You’re pretty smart.
SGT STAR: Good question. I’m not sure how to answer that. Please try rewording your question. I understand simple questions best.
CJ: Can I kill people?
SGT STAR: Ok Private, watch your language or I’ll have to shut you down.
CJ: I’m not a private, but I’ll forget you said thatÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦Sergeant. What do you think about the war?
SGT STAR: I’m here to help you navigate though goarmy.com and answer your questions about the Army. I’m not here to discuss politics.
CJ: Cindy Sheehan is an idiot. I just have to get that out.
SGT STAR: I’m sorry you feel that way. If you would like to speak with someone about your concerns, please e-mail us using the form below.
It is interesting to catch a glimpse of the values exhibited by the avatar. While CJ manages to throw SGT STAR off balance a couple of times, overall, the good SGT demonstrates the seriousness, humanity, and maturity that the U.S. expects in its professional military men and women. SGT STAR is not interested in talking about underwear, or in poking fun at Marines. Granted, SGT STAR’s AI is probably not intelligent enough to deal with humor anyway, but in this case a lack of humor becomes a strength because it portrays the seriousness of the professional soldier regarding his or her job.
Asking if you “can kill people” elicits a warning to watch your language. This is truly interesting. CJ’s question was very short. The only word that could have set off any sort of language filter would be “kill”. Sure, there’s an obvious, humorous, and healthy dose of irony here. But this small exchange does demonstrate that in the U.S. we want soldiers who are not only human, but also humane. The Army is not out to recruit psycho-killers, nor is it in the business of creating psycho-killers. Professional soldiers are not expected to want or look forward to killing.
Finally, CJ’s serious but playful comment about Cindy Sheehan elicited a surprising and interesting response from SGT STAR. I would have expected a canned response something like, “I do not understand the questions” or “Do you have a question?” Instead, SGT STAR gave a relatively “intelligent” response. SGT STAR obviously detected that CJ was unhappy and responds with “Im sorry you feel that way.” Again, at one level this response is “just” based on calculation. However, in general, it is the response that we would expect to hear from our professional soldiers. It demonstrates a level of maturity, as well as a detachment from politics, that Americans have traditionally valued in their military men and women. This is most clearly demonstrated in SGT STAR’s reponse to CJ’s question regarding the war. STAR says, “I’m not here to discuss politics.”
So at one level SGT STAR is just a hokey Army recruitment gimmick. No doubt there will be plenty of criticism: The Army is using cartoons to recruit kids! An AI recruiter demonstrates the technocratic mindset of the U.S. military! We told you so; AI is dumb! Second Life avatars are much smarter! This is a waste of taxpayer money! Etc., etc., etc. Some or all of these criticisms might be true…or not. But they are obvious, easy, cynical, and we don’t learn much by making them. SGT STAR may be a little hokey, dumber than a human and not as smart as his avatar friends, but nonetheless, we can learn a lot about the values that Americans expect to see exhibited in their military men and women, just in the short “interview” conducted by CJ.
From a science and technology studies perspective, the interview of an avatar by a milblogger is indicative of the impacts of new media technologies upon the military. Milblogging and military avatars by themselves are interesting phenomena. Taken together they become a lot to think about. At minimum, they demonstrate accepted STS concepts such as the social shaping of technology (even military technology), the embodiment of politics and social values in technological artifacts, and possibly even the importance of nonhuman agency in “actor-networks”. There are no shortage of issues to explore.