Want to talk to a WWII vet? AI can help at this New Orleans museum

by Vern Evans

NEW ORLEANS — An interactive exhibit opening Wednesday at the National WWII Museum will use artificial intelligence to let visitors hold virtual conversations with images of veterans, including a Medal of Honor winner who died in 2022.

Voices From the Front will also enable visitors to the New Orleans museum to ask questions of war-era home front heroes and supporters of the U.S. war effort — including a military nurse who served in the Philippines, an aircraft factory worker, and Margaret Kerry, a dancer who performed at USO shows and, after the war, was a model for the Tinker Bell character in Disney productions.

Four years in the making, the project incorporates video-recorded interviews with 18 veterans of the war or the support effort — each of them having sat for as many as a thousand questions about the war and their personal lives. Among the participants was Marine Corps veteran Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Wilson, a Medal of Honor Winner who fought at Iwo Jima, Japan. He died in June 2022 after recording his responses.

Visitors to the new exhibit will stand in front of a console and pick who they want to converse with. Then, a life-sized image of that person, sitting comfortably in a chair, will appear on a screen in front of them.

“Any of us can ask a question,” said Peter Crean, a retired Army colonel and the museum’s vice president of education. “It will recognize the elements of that question. And then using AI, it will match the elements of that question to the most appropriate of those thousand answers.”

Aging veterans have long played a part in personalizing the experience of visiting the museum, which opened in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum. Veterans often volunteered at the museum, manning a table near the entrance where visitors could talk to them about the war. But that practice has diminished as the veterans age and die. The COVID-19 pandemic was especially hard on the WWII generation, Crean said.

“As that generation is beginning to fade into history, the opportunity for the American public to speak with a World War II veteran is going to become more and more limited,” he said.

The technology isn’t perfect. For example when Crean asked the image of veteran Bob Wolf whether he had a dog as a child, there followed an expansive answer about Wolf’s childhood — his favorite radio shows and breakfast cereal — before he noted that he had pet turtles.

But, said Crean, the AI mechanism can learn as more questions are asked of it and rephrased. A brief lag time after the asking of the question will diminish, and the recorded answers will be more responsive to the questions, he said.

The Voices From the Front interactive station is being unveiled Wednesday as part of the opening of the museum’s new Malcolm S. Forbes Rare and Iconic Artifacts Gallery, named for an infantry machine gunner who fought on the front lines in Europe. Malcom S. Forbes was a son of Bertie Charles Forbes, founder of Forbes magazine. Exhibits include his Bronze Star, Purple Heart and a blood-stained jacket he wore when wounded.

Some of the 18 war-era survivors who took part in the recordings were set to be on hand for Wednesday evening’s opening.

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