Vol. 3, Issue 3, February 1, 2005
Legal Battles Loom Over "Virtual Carson" Project
In the shadow of the nation's tributes to television legend Johnny Carson who died on January 23, a bitter legal battle is shaping up over a clandestine project that could posthumously define his legacy to the entertainment industry.
"Johnny Carson was one of the greatest comics of our time," said Dave Kehr, entertainment critic for The New York Times. "As host of The Tonight Show for thirty years, he came into the homes of Americans five nights a week and wowed them with his warm, charming, and clean humor. Who wouldn't want to be able to keep that going?"
Apparently, in the wake of Carson's retirement in 1992, NBC executives became frantic as his importance to their viewers became all too apparent. That is when, according to documents filed in federal court this week, a secret project was launched in collaboration with the artificial intelligence division of General Electric, which owns NBC, to create a "virtual Carson."
"Artificial intelligence was a really hot field at that time," said Tor Janssen, associate professor of electrical engineering at Rice University. "There was a lot of interest in developing interactive neural networks capable of simulating human behavior, and realistic computer graphics were feasible for the first time. This project seemed not only feasible, but logical."
In the twelve years since his retirement, NBC has secretly invested $65 million in the creation of a virtual late-night show host simulating Johnny Carson.
"It's no small feat of engineering," said Janssen. "Doing someone like Ed McMahon is easy; I think they finished a Virtual Ed in a few hours using a Commodore Amiga. But Carson's personality was the key to his success, and programming a sophisticated sense of humor into a computer isn't exactly easy."
Allegedly, NBC actually succeeded in creating a simulation of Carson capable of passing the Turing test in 2003, using thousands of hours of vintage Tonight Show footage as crucial data. However, the project was still kept under wraps because he was still alive.
"NBC jumped the gun, though," said Kehr. "They could see those dollar signs, and did a small, secret test show out in Chicago this past weekend. They just couldn't wait. And of course one of the members of the studio audience took pictures with his cellphone and posted them to the internet within hours."
Carson's estate is suing NBC to halt the project. In addition, his three ex-wives are filing separate suits not to halt the project, but to obtain a portion of the proceeds. The court battles are expected to last for years.
"This does raise some disturbing philosophical issues about immortality and the right to our own personalities, etc. etc." said Kehr. "But if it means seeing Johnny Carson back on again every night, I'm willing to live with that."