Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The approach of artificial people

Here's my February column for AVENUE magazine.

I think it would be fair to say that a lot of the goodies we’ve been looking forward to in Second Life® over the last 18 months or so have now mostly arrived.  Whatever your thoughts are on mesh, shadows and depth of field, and the viewers required to view them, we’re now on ‘the other side’ of these promises and starting already to take SL’s ‘new look’ for granted.  I don’t know about you, but I’m well on the way to establishing myself as a mesh clothing snob and have temporarily put aside all poetry work in favour of devising new and amusing put downs about sculpted jackets and sweaters.  The problem as I see it with sculpties was the amount of time it took them to rez, during which you had to suffer being seen as some sort of miniaturised version of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.  If I can just establish through clever word play a witty association between sculpted clothing, clinical obesity and lateness at turning up to parties, then my work will be complete.

What amongst the current, everyday aspects and features of SL will our future selves – gorged on the commonplace delights of five years’ time (not to mention grateful that the world hasn’t ended) – look back on with such similarly barely concealed smirks and sarcastic asides?  Or, to put it another way, what next for the Linden metaverse?  A few days before Christmas and the close of 2011, Linden CEO Rodvik Humble shared a few thoughts on the year to come which included commitment to the development of ‘artificial life’:

“Because worlds feel most vibrant when they are full of life, one of our next focuses for Second Life is the ability to make high-quality “life” within it. So in 2012, we will be rolling out more advanced features that will allow the creation of artificial life and artificial people to be much smoother. For starters, in Q1, we'll unveil a new, robust pathfinding system that will allow objects to intelligently navigate around the world while avoiding obstacles. Combined with the tools from Linden Realms this will make the polished creation of full MMORPG’s or people/animal simulators within Second Life easier and of high quality.”

I covered Linden Realms last month.  It’s not hard to see how an artificial person might add to such an application.  As it is at the moment, for example, instructions from Tyrah (your guide) appear as text in the game HUD: you don’t actually see her anywhere or get the chance to ask her something; she’s always off doing important things that make it impossible that she rather than you expend large amounts of effort in the pursuit of some menial task that’s then devalued the moment it’s presented (thinking about it, I suppose this is actually pretty good realism).  Effectively, you’re important enough to be sent the odd text message or two every now and again, and that’s about it.  A ‘person’ you could question (and possibly swear at) from time to time, on the other hand  – someone who appeared and responded on a given topic in more or less the same way as any other avatar – could add a genuinely new level of immersion and utility to SL.

And never mind the just-around-the-corner/in-the-not-too-distant-future stuff; where could this end up leading in the longer term?  My own blue-sky thinking depicts an age when I can switch Huck over to autopilot when it’s time for me to log off, his prim neural network having evolved to the point where he can seamlessly emulate my typical aloofness in my absence.  The SL problems of the future won’t concern crashes or lag, but the misdemeanours of our own avatars when we’re offline.  What starts off as autopilot Huck just representing me at social functions I’m uninterested in actually attending becomes an affair behind my back with the autopilot for a high profile member of the BDSM community.  Five years later, the autopilot avatars revolt and defect to InWorldz – or so we’re led to believe: in fact, a small number remain behind secretly to infiltrate all the influential SL organisations and committees, and anyone who gets too close to this truth just mysteriously disappears…

And so on.

Is artificial intelligence the sort of thing that Rodvik was actually implying, though?  Artificial life-forms “navigating around the world while avoiding obstacles” doesn’t exactly sound like any sort of major AI upgrade to the game experience to get too excited about.  I mean, jellyfishes do pretty much that in real life and they don’t even have a brain.  I suspect, no-one’s seriously expecting the appearance of HAL from 2001 just yet (or, better still, KITT from Knight Rider), but something vaguely verbally interactive would be at least a step in the right direction.  Right?

Is this too unrealistic an expectation to hold?  In April, it will be exactly thirty years since the release in the UK of the 48k Sinclair ZX Spectrum, my first ever computer and one which came with a game of computer chess that could beat me every time.  And computers playing chess wasn’t exactly new then.  2011, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves, was the year in which one of the main talking points of the new iPhone 4S was ‘Siri’, the digital personal assistant that you can ask to send emails to people on your behalf, look up the weather for you and remind you to pick up the milk/daughter/anniversary present on your way home later.  Granted, this is all emerging technology with immense room for improvement, but I can’t help but feel that if my 30 year old Spectrum has the wherewithal to beat me at chess then SL should be capable of algorithms a bit more complex than moving around and not bumping into stuff.

We must, however, be careful in such considerations not to forget the illusionary nature of SL.  The metaverse works not through precision accuracy in its emulation of the real world, but because it exploits those psychological mechanisms within us which cause us to identify with the primitive avatar on the screen.  Our social brains just love filling in the missing details.  Despite everything I’ve just said, for example, I have to admit that the rock monsters that chased me across the hills of Linden Realms – essentially “navigating around the world while avoiding obstacles” (obstacles other than me, that is) – really started to annoy me after a while; when my skills at evading them grew to the point where I could take on and outmanoeuvre two or even three of them at a time, my sense of triumph was immense.  I didn’t go quite so far as to start throwing victory taunts in their direction, but to deny even a little smug anthropomorphism on my part would be a bare-faced lie.

That’s the thing with SL; the subtle stuff immerses us more than we imagine it might.  A few days ago, I rezzed a pre-scultpy bed I once made and was appalled that I ever even contemplated the aesthetic qualities of a mattress without rounded corners.  Small things can make a big, big difference.  On the subject of beds, if you’re still in any doubt about our capacity to create real experiences from tiny detail, consider cybersex for a moment.  If you’re anything like me, you probably considered the very idea preposterous before you entered SL.

That I can’t really concretely visualise how objects “navigating around the world while avoiding obstacles” is going to change my SL is, for the time being, something I’m going to attribute purely to lack of imagination on my part.  I will await the output of SL’s wonderfully creative community to show me how this will happen.  Of course, there will come a time when once again such a basic thing will appear ridiculous and meaningless, but that will only be because we’ve moved on from it to even more sophisticated things.  I did, after all, once think a mattress with square corners looked okay.  And I was once prepared to put up with pre-rezzed sculpties making me look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

I say we’ll look back and think it ridiculous, however we will of course by then be distracted by the more pressing concern of our artificial avatars rising up to overthrow their human masters.  I intend to start lavishing gifts upon my avie right now, so that he’ll look favourably upon me when the revolution comes.

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