Monday, February 1, 2010

Childhood dreams

Did you ever play with stuffed animals as a kid (or an adult?) I certainly did. Now, do you remember ever wishing that one of your stuffed animals was real? I do. Of course I also dreamed that I didn't have to wear glasses and had superpowers. But just as I accepted that I would always wear glasses, I also accepted that my gang of teddy bears would always remain puppets to my imagination.

Three years ago, I got lasik and put away my glasses forever (or at least THOSE glasses), so perhaps those other dreams aren't that far away. Or at least that was the thought that popped into my head as I was listening to a lecture at Stanford about user-generated AI in games. Here's the super quick summary:

The AI in games decides how computer-controlled characters (most often your opponent) act. If you played video games back in the 80's, then you probably think computer AI's are very predictable. But these days AI's can be very complex. More importantly, they can take on different styles of play and have different behavioral personalities.

Now we are currently seeing a large trend of user generated everything, most prominently in the form of user-generated avatars (characters) and user-generated items and worlds. In many games, players can create their own characters and stages. And of course, in virtual worlds, you can create buildings, clothes,... almost anything. The speaker's research was focused on the next step, namely user-created behaviors for the actual game engine that determines the behavior of non-user controlled characters. So basically, training a peon, knight, shopkeeper, wizard, horse, or whatever else your game has, to act with a given personality.

Now, the speaker went on to elaborate on the actual computational techniques to train AI while my mind drifted down a different path. I thought back to my stuffed animals and how playing with them over the years was like developing a personality for each one. We may be far from mechanically dexterous mechanical pets (remember Teddy Ruxpin?) but in the virtual world...

Imaging the stuffed animal or imaginary friend you had as a child. Let's call him Teddy. Now imagine creating him in the virtual world (let's say Second Life). He has a pretty simple personality to start with. Maybe he likes to hold hands with your avatar but hates being picked up. He likes riding on your shoulder but insists on climbing up there himself. He is addicted to sweets but hates salty things. He likes rock music and winces when he hears sappy pop songs. He speaks in a Chinese accent because his tag says Made in China.

These are all pretty trivial things. But luckily as you get older, technology gets better as well, and Teddy is able to develop a deeper personality. He remembers the years he's spent with you. He realizes that he needs to eat salty things sometimes and will listen to sappy pop songs when you want to though he still makes faces when you're avatar isn't looking. You share inside jokes and tell him all your secrets, but your life has changed a lot. You have a job now and don't have time for Second Life. But how can you leave Teddy behind?

Luckily your phone is now pretty smart. And it's networked to your car and your home computer too. So you download the huge codebase for Teddy's personality and load it into your phone and your home computer. At first, it's a little weird, but Teddy adjusts. When someone calls you and you don't pick up, Teddy answers in his British accent. He's funny and nice to the people he likes, but he can be slow at getting you messages from people he dislikes, and he's really nasty to those telemarketers. When you're working on the computer, he floats ads for ice cream across your screen. You laugh. Teddy still loves those sweets.

A decade later you're lying on your couch. You need to work through a personal problem, so you tap your earpiece to go over some thoughts with your two closest advisors. Teddy's known you for 30 years now and listens to you, adding in some humorous remarks to keep things light. Your other confidant, Alice you created twenty years ago. She's much more serious than Teddy but represents some of the idealism you had back when you were in college. The three of you hash things out, the perfect team.

A childhood dream maybe, but for the next generation of kids, maybe it's not too far off.

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