Summer 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 2
There’s a new twist on the old party game of asking what questions a person might ask should they have the opportunity to dine with Abraham Lincoln or other historical figures. The “synthetic interview,” a technology that comes from the computer labs at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, has made it possible to chat with such luminaries as Charles Darwin, George Westinghouse, and Ben Franklin. And Abe is in the works.
This new experiment in living history represents a cross between Disney’s animatronics and CNN’s holographic imagery. At the Carnegie Science Center, an actor portraying the evolutionary scientist Darwin appears on a large screen that stands within his re-created study. Visitors can quiz Darwin via a touch screen. The exhibit’s designers crafted 199 questions after querying more than 1,000 people.
“A lot of people said they’d ask him, ‘Who are you?’” says John Pollock, professor of biological sciences at Duquesne University and the chief designer of the Carnegie exhibit. The designers worked hard to include everything from the most elemental questions about the man himself to nuanced aspects of evolution, natural selection, and religious belief. Visitors can also ask questions of 13 other virtual experts representing the fields of biology, natural history, and theology—and learn more about the scientific and religious issues surrounding evolutionary theory.
One of the creators of the synthetic interview believes that the technology can steer people toward deeper explorations of history and biography. “I think it’s one piece that can help motivate people to pick up a book,” says Scott Stevens of Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. “By no stretch of the imagination is it meant to replace more traditional methods of understanding the past.”
Currently, you can quiz Darwin at the Carnegie Science Center (www.carnegiesciencecenter.org), chat with George Westinghouse at Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center (www.heinzhistorycenter.org), and interview Ben Franklin at the Peco Energy Liberty Center in Philadelphia (historicphiladelphia.org).