Will artificial intelligence invade Second Life?

Soon players of "Second Life" will have the opportunity to purchase
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Popular culture is filled with different notions of what artificial intelligence should or will be like. There's the all-powerful Skynet from the "Terminator" movies, "Star Wars"-style androids, HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey," the classic sentient computer program, carrying on a witty conversation through a computer terminal. Soon, we may have to add another to the list. In September 2007, a software company called Novamente, along with the Electric Sheep Company, a producer of add-ons for virtual worlds, announced plans to release artificial intelligences (AI) into virtual worlds like the ultra-popular "Second Life."

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Novamente's "intelligent virtual agents" would use online games and virtual worlds as a development zone, where they will grow, learn and develop by interacting with humans. The company said that it will start by creating virtual pets that become smarter as they interact with their (human-controlled) avatar owners. (An avatar is the character or virtual representation of a player in a virtual world.) More complex artificially controlled animals and avatars are expected to follow.

Novamente's artificial intelligence is powered by a piece of software called a "Cognition Engine." Pets and avatars powered by the Cognition Engine will feature a mix of automated behaviors and learning and problem-solving capabilities. Ben Goertzel, the CEO of Novamente, said that his company had already created a "fully functioning animal brain" [source: BBC News]. Goertzel envisioned Novamente's first artificial intelligences as dogs and monkeys, initially going on sale at your local virtual pet shop in October 2007.

These virtual pets will work much like real pets -- trainable, occasionally misbehaving, showing the ability learn and perform tasks and responding positively to rewards. After dogs and monkeys, Novamente would then move on to more complex creatures, such as parrots that, like their real-life counterparts, could learn to speak. Finally, the company expects to produce virtual human babies that, propelled by its own artificial intelligence, would grow, develop and learn in the virtual world [source: BBC News].

While we frequently see or read about robots with interesting capabilities, scientists have struggled for decades to create anything approaching a genuine artificial intelligence. A robot may be an expert at one skill, say shooting a basketball, but numerous basic tasks, such as walking down stairs, may be beyond its capabilities. This is where a virtual world has its advantages, Goertzel says.

On the next page, we'll look at why virtual worlds may present the next and best frontier for the development of artificial intelligence.

Advantages of Artificial Intelligence in Virtual Worlds

© Photographer: Alice Dehaven~herden

While we already deal with some virtual AI -- notably in action games against computer-controlled "bots" or challenging a computer opponent to chess -- the work of Novamente, Electric Sheep Company and other firms has the potential to initiate a new age of virtual AI, one where, for better or worse, humans and artificial intelligences could potentially be indistinguishable.

If you think about it, we take in numerous pieces of information just walking down the street, much of it unconsciously. You might be thinking about the weather, the pace of your steps, where to step next, the movement of other people, smells, sounds, the distance to the destination, the effect of the environment around you and so forth. An artificial intelligence in a virtual world has fewer of these variables to deal with because as of yet, no virtual world approaches the complexity of the real world. It may be that by simplifying the world in which the artificial intelligence operates (and by working in a self-contained world), some breakthroughs can be achieved. Such a process would allow for a more linear development of artificial intelligence rather than an attempt to immediately jump to lifelike robots capable of learning, reason and self-analysis.

Goertzel states that a virtual world also offers the advantage of allowing a newly formed artificial intelligence to interact with thousands of people and characters, increasing learning opportunities [source: PC World]. The virtual body is also easier to manage and control than that of a robot. If an AI-controlled parrot seems to have particular challenges in a game world, it's less difficult for programmers to create another virtual animal than if they were working with a robot. And while a virtual world AI lacks a physical body, it displays more complexity (and more realism) than a simple AI that merely carries on text-based conversations with a human.

Novamente claims that its system is the first to allow artificial intelligences to progress through a process of self-analysis and learning [source: Novamente]. The company hopes that its AI will also distinguish itself from other attempts at AI by surprising its creators in its capabilities -- for example, by learning a skill or task that it wasn't programmed to perform. Novamente has already created what it terms an "artificial baby" in the AGISim virtual world [source: Novamente]. This artificial baby has learned to perform some basic functions.

Despite all of this excitement, the AI discussed here are far from what's envisioned in "Terminator." It will be some time before AIs are seamlessly interacting with players, impressing us with their cleverness and autonomy and seeming all too human. Even Philip Rosedale, the founder of Linden Labs, the company behind "Second Life," has warned against becoming caught up in the hype of the supposedly groundbreaking potential of these virtual worlds [source: CNET News].

But "Second Life" and other virtual worlds may prove to be the most valuable testing grounds to date for AI. It will also be interesting to track how virtual artificial intelligences progress as the virtual worlds they occupy change and become more complex. Besides acting as an incubator for artificial intelligence, "Second Life" has already been an important case study in the development of cyber law and the economics and legality of hawking virtual goods for real dollars. The popular virtual world has even been mentioned as a possible virtual training facility for children taking emergency preparedness classes [source: CNET News].

For more information about artificial intelligence in virtual worlds, "Second Life" and other related topics, please check out the links on the next page.

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  • "Novamente Cognition Engine." Novamente. http://www.novamente.net/engine/
  • Duncan, Geoff. "AIs May Call Virtual Worlds Home." Digital Trends. Sept. 13, 2007. http://news.digitaltrends.com/news/story/14178/ais_may_call_virtual_worlds_home
  • Havenstein, Heather. "Virtual Worlds Make AI Apps 'Smarter.'" PC World. Sept. 13, 2007. http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,137189-c,technology/article.html
  • McCarthy, Caroline. "'Second Life': The Promise and the Paradox." CNET News. Aug. 26, 2007. http://www.news.com/Second-Life-The-promise-and-paradox/2100-1043_3-6204524.html?tag=item
  • Ward, Mark. "Online worlds to be AI incubators." BBC News. Sept. 13, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/6992613.stm