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].
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