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"Virtuality, A.I., and Human Panic"

[written January 8, 2002]

This is hardly a new theory, but I think humans will suffer from an inferiority complex in the first half of the twenty-first century. I was trying to think about what to write about, and I started thinking about how the human species would react once the first A.I. writes a book that qualifies as one of the best books ever written.

Surely a well-developed A.I. will be able to mimic human styles and grasp the more mechanical and formulaic aspects of writing, and they will be able to draw on all of human literature, all of human history, and all of human syntactical tendencies to pull in the most accurate and obscure references, the precise wording, and the best-sounding and flowing writing styles into their work. While perhaps it will take a long time for them to develop a sense of emotion, so that they can genuinely write about it in a book, I'm sure they could mimic human emotion based on past works well enough to fool most people. I mean, shit, half the writers NOW don't even sound genuine with emotional subjects.

I have no doubt in my mind that people will react violently if something were to happen like an anonymous bestseller being credited to an A.I. Hundreds of millions of people around the world have for one reason or another, whether it be religion or simple arrogance, a belief that they are superior as a species to anything else in the world, and to some, God's gift to Earth. While some will try to write off self-aware A.I. as a testament to the greatness of man's ingenuity, it will still gnaw at most people that something on this Earth is now superior to man in many areas that man takes pride in. That carnival scene where bots are destroyed in A.I. seems unavoidable.

But what is the larger implication? Like in the movie, A.I., not much attention was paid to what we usually ascribe to robots: hard physical labor and number-crunching. While all that will be extremely useful, the most creative and driving work will come out of developing A.I. to make us happy and to make our lives more entertaining.

Probably where A.I. will have the biggest impact first is over the Internet, because it's less complex in not requiring a plausible physical form to fool us into thinking the thing we're talking to can think worth a damn.

I've thought about this in some detail, but haven't been able to grasp all the facets of it, but I really do think humans will develop a virtual world of some sort. This virtual world will contain many of the material devices we work so hard to get in the real world, like neighborhoods, houses, transportation, prestige, reputations, etc.

It will come about partially because people will seek to organize the online world in a more familiar way, changing it from the current primordial sea of random foundries of information into a constructed and highly organized electronic megatropolis of sorts.

I imagine it will probably start as the result of an open source effort. I think the open source community as it is is a joke, as most of the people involved are full of themselves and think somehow they will topple Microsoft with halfwit ideas and insults. But here's what might happen: a group of people will develop a very loose, very flexible, and FREE protocol for this new virtual world. They'll release a specification along with an app that allows people to enter a world that lets you enter and grab a piece of property which has a specific address and that's about it. There will be areas available where you can purchase things for your property, after you've built something there. Or of course you could rent. There'd be a gold rush of sorts, with the most savvy Internet users flocking once the buzz is good that this is a worthwhile project, to grab the best stuff possible before everyone else.

The developers would have to have very large dreams in order to pull this off. The scope would have to be to make sure they get as much in as possible before they go live with it, and they would have to understand that this could be the beginning of a new Internet. I'm not sure how space would be handled, as I don't think fixing someone to one physical location in a virtual world would either be smart or advantageous to anyone. What if there were communities which sought to protect those who chose to live inside, and in order for you to move your property, you'd have to obtain permission first? You could of course have unlimited communities, each with varying tastes, and from there you'd be able to join wherever you want, and it wouldn't so much be based on what you could afford. I guess that's not completely true because maybe some communities would require a minimum income or something.

I think something like this could really start to steamroll if the beginning world was believable enough. You take something like The Sims, which is going to be a massive online universe soon, and lets you modify just about every minute detail of your Sims' lives, like the wallpaper of their bedroom or the traits of their personalities, and you combine it with those people comparing themselves to other people, and put it all in a large standardized virtual world, and then it actually becomes worthwhile to spend time on configuring yourself.

The problem with things now is that different online worlds are all completely separate from each other. Why should someone put effort into creating a virtual life when only a handful of other people are involved? But then you take large communities like the Diablo 2 or Everquest communities, and you see people devote huge amounts of time towards "bettering" themselves, meeting people and getting married, purchasing using real money the exact armor or weapons they want, and so on. When you have tens of thousands of people or more, it becomes worthwhile to make yourself unique. You can have a thriving community when these pieces come together.

Think about Napster. Napster started off as a little app, but as more people started using it, the library of music increased and its usefulness grew exponentially. While it was totally useless at first with, say, 100 people, at its peak it must have had an Alexandrian Library-esque quality to it.

What's holding the Internet back right now is its severe fragmentation. Development projects are completely isolated from each other and there's no common goal for everyone's work. But if there was a virtual world in place with very flexible properties that allowed for all sorts of, shall we say, plug-ins like fantasy football, porn sites, card game sites (these areas of interest being among the more popular uses of the Internet), then those plug-ins would all hook into a common, open community, and those projects wouldn't have to re-invent the wheel each time.

You're beginning to see the underlying technology being developed for this. A lot of work is going into making interfaces for different languages and whatnot using SOAP, XML, stylesheets, and so on, so that content developed by one company can be incorporated into another company's work.

What would benefit greatly from this is the development in A.I. The virtual world can easily be inhabited by many bots to man the stores (since who would want to sit there 24/7 helping customers?), service lonely men, chat it up in bars or on streets, arrange our day planners for the next day, and so on. But right now A.I. work is being done by a lot of different people and they don't benefit from each other except in idea sharing. What if there were a standardized format, XML-ized, so that the reactions, moods, and phraseology of one bot could be integrated into another bot's source instantly? They'd quickly grow in size, so that they'd have a wider vocabulary from which to pull from, and would react less predictably and repetitively. An important thing to remember is that an A.I. does not have to be completely human, but human enough to fool most people.

A great thing about this virtual world is that it would be open source and modular. Say you wanted just a basic house. You could download the basic structure for free and have it installed on your property instantly. You could download whatever tools you want for your interface and it would work. Like you could easily press a key and your e-mail would come up in the corner of the virtual world's 1st person screen. Think of a game's interface. The integration is crucial, but so is flexibility for people to choose what tools they want to use.

You would be able to move from one location to another instantly, of course, and you could add commonly-visited addresses like home or a bar to your favorite locations list, kind of like a web browser. But there could also be private communities, protected by firewalls on the technical side and gates on the virtual side that would be hard to hack (it would be in the community's best interest to have a team to maintain their neighborhood security) and would require someone internally to give you permission to enter. I imagine some places like libraries might want to remain independent of any communities and would be publically available to all. You wouldn't HAVE to join anything if you didn't want to. Peoples' properties would be protected by firewalls and scanners as well, all of which would be easy to download and set up.

Companies would come running soon. They'd love to have an entirely new world to set up advertising in, and new companies would have new niches to fill. Plus they'd have to have a presence proportional to the popularity of this virtual world. Software companies would have a significant interest to develop software that could integrate into this world. But they'd only be able to add modules and not change the world's basic infrastructure, since that itself would be open source. Microsoft might try to create its own world separate of the virtual world, but it wouldn't get very far. Part of AOL's current success in maintaining its own separate identity I think comes from its pre-existing userbase and tradition from before the Internet was around. I don't know if Microsoft could start from nothing as far as online worlds go.

You would be able to code in behaviors and scheduled events into your house bots or into your house and material possesions, using something like C++ or Java. This would give incentive to a larger group of people to learn how to code, so that they could freely manipulate the world they live in. if (Intruder) { initVirusBot(Room, Severity); notifyPolice(); }

Why not integrate a role playing game into the world from the start? I mean, hell, online RPGs have been massive hits. You could have all kinds of new professions online, from career thief to magician to whatever. You go on quests, collect special items, sell them on fucking ebay.

You could be at a bar in real life and you log on with someone else there and play whatever game you want, like cribbage or whatnot. You could play trivia with everyone in the bar. You could join an online sports team and play it in the virtual world like you would on a PlayStation 2. All those games that people are trying to put online now but aren't succeeding much would finally find an integrated environment in this new virtual world.

I remember discussing with Anna over Christmas about the Internet, and she said I was sort of ahead of my time because the things I do online have no real life benefit, but one day perhaps there'd be a tangible connection between feats offline and online, whether it be financial or through reputation. I thought that was a cool concept.

Anyway, I'm getting rambly. I see great potential in the Internet still, but right now it is stagnating precisely because good ideas have to be done by small teams, and those ideas aren't important enough to follow in the vast, unorganized world that the Internet currently is. There's little financial benefit for people to put time into products for the Internet anymore, because there's no large community. The Internet right now is like a giant dumpster that is never emptied. You can find good stuff in it if you keep looking, but basically it's still just a pile of scattered trash that stinks really bad.

This is a bold dream and one that draws a lot from MUDs and online gaming, but also the principles of open source and open networks. I think, done right and strongly at first, a virtual world could incorporate all the idealistic ideas with all the realistic ones, and forge an online community that could finally begin to see some competition to the real world, and would as well finally provide significant financial, artistic, social, and creative incentives to devoting resources to the Internet.


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