This Museum Lets Visitors Talk to A.I. Copies of World War II Veterans

Eighteen Americans who participated in the war effort each answered up to 1,000 questions on camera to create their interactive video likenesses

A visitor sits across from a video of a veteran on a screen
At New Orleans' National WWII Museum, visitors can chat with virtual versions of World War II veterans. The National WWII Museum

At the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, a new interactive exhibition is using artificial intelligence to facilitate conversations with veterans, home front workers, nurses, USO dancers and others who participated in the war effort.

The show—called “Voices From the Front”—features life-sized video likenesses of 18 Americans. When visitors ask them questions, an A.I. program pulls the best answer from a series of pre-recorded videos, per the Washington Post’s Katy Reckdahl.

Each participant sat before more than a dozen cameras and answered as many as 1,000 questions about their lives and war experiences.

“I’m making history, to see myself telling the story of what happened to me over there,” Olin Pickens, a 102-year-old veteran, tells Kevin McGill and Stephen Smith of the Associated Press (AP). “I’m so proud that I’m here, that people can see me.”

Pickens was stationed with the 805th Tank Destroyer Battalion at Faïd Pass in Tunisia in 1943, according to the exhibition page. German forces attacked his company and captured him just two weeks after he joined the unit. He spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp.

Since the National WWII Museum opened in 2000, veterans have volunteered to sit at a table and share their memories with guests, per the AP. But their numbers are dwindling: As of last year, only 119,550 of the 16.1 million Americans who served in the war were still alive. The new exhibition is billed as a way to help World War II veterans and witnesses continue telling their stories.

“Preserving the personal accounts of those who served and sacrificed in defense of our freedom during World War II is at the foundation of our mission,” says Stephen Watson, president and CEO of the museum, in a statement. “This powerful addition to the museum will give visitors the ability to authentically connect with these individuals, creating an effective way to carry on their memories of the sights, sounds, terrors and triumphs of the war for generations to come.”

A screen with a video of a World War II veteran
A group of 18 Americans sat for lengthy video interviews about their experiences during the war. The National WWII Museum

The A.I. copies don’t always understand what’s being asked of them, and they sometimes take a long time to respond. According to the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate’s Doug MacCash, “I don’t have an answer to that question” is a common reply—at least for now. As the program fields more questions, its speed and accuracy will improve with time.

StoryFile, a company specializing in A.I. conversational videos, produced the show, which the museum began putting together after it received a $1.5 million donation. It opened last month, and participants got the chance to talk with their virtual copies at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“I didn’t know I was that good-looking,” said Tolley Fletcher, a 98-year-old Navy veteran, per the Times-Picayune. “It’s kind of weird talking to yourself.”

Fletcher was part of the historic D-Day invasion on Normandy’s beaches on June 6, 1944. He also served in North Africa and tracked down German U-boats in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

Three participants died before their virtual copies debuted. One of them was Hershel Woodrow “Woody” Williams, who was the war’s last surviving veteran to receive the Medal of Honor. He served in the Battle of Guam and the Battle of Iwo Jima.

“Woody was the last one,” Peter Crean, a museum vice president and a retired Army colonel, tells the Washington Post. “This is now the only place that you can go to have a conversation with a World War II Medal of Honor recipient.”

Voices From the Front” is now on view at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

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