The fable of the Manchurian candidate is over half a century old at this point. In it, communists use Jedi mind tricks on a U.S. Army Captain in order to overthrow the American government. The basic theme connects brainwashing and politics with a sense McCarthy-era urgency that conspiracy theorists love almost as much as Hollywood directors. The brainwashing part is a little over the top, though the portrayal of Americans as malleable citizens is salient. So what if campaign strategists could actually use brainwashing-like techniques on the voting public?
Enter the scientists. Today's New York Times featured a head-scratching article about some innovative 3-D avatar software being developed at Stanford. One suggested use of the technology, virtual reality meetings and conference calls, sounds like a college student's slacker fantasy:
1) Without leaving your living room or office, you’ll sit at three-dimensional virtual meetings and classes, looking around the table or the lecture hall at your colleagues’ avatars.
2) Your avatar will be programmed to make a better impression than you could ever manage.
3) While your avatar sits there at the conference table gazing alertly and taking notes, you can do something more important: sleep.
But the Times kind of buries the lede. The same technology has also been proven to make politicians more likeable. The process is not unlike the music video for Michael Jackson's "Black or White." Using pixel blending software, scientists can morph a politician's face with the features of any given voter, and that person is much more likely to approve of the politician. As long as the voter's face makes up no more than 40% of the composite image, she will likely not be able to tell the difference. Here's how Hilary Clinton might look:
At Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a 2005 study suggests that a similar technique could have "manipulated the outcome of the 2004 Presidential election." Employing the technique in the many digital representations of candidates in videos, photos and mailers, candidates could instill altruism and trust by psychologically tricking voters into feeling similar to the candidate.
Will presidential hopefuls try these innovative techniques in 2012? Probably not--politicians already get enough flak for seeming robotic. Is it totally crazy to think that any politicians might morph their faces? Not really--in the age of airbrushed faces and Photoshopped bodies, we're already enhancing images of celebrities quite a bit. If a few mouse clicks can make politicians seem more empathetic, then I really do believe in America.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.