Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Do Robots Dream Of Electric SLex?

Bots are becoming more and more popular in Second Life, to boost traffic numbers or even dance with guests.

Yes, dancing with guests and even holding a rudimentary conversation. The complexity of the bots is increasing and they will only become better at responding to others as time goes by.

While others debate the considerations for a parcel's 'traffic numbers' and whether or not this is giving an unfair advantage to certain merchants, I think unrestrained 'bot experimentation in Second Life is incredibly promising.

The Turning Test was designed to evaluate the effectiveness of a computer program to fool others into believing that they are interacting with a human instead of a machine. Simple programs like Eliza can fool people for a short period of time, whereas more complex ones can fool people for longer. Eliza is a simple program that simulates a therapist speaking to a patient. It is surprising how a little bit of pattern recognition can mimic simple human interaction.

In the past, the tests have been largely academic. Commercial exploitation of artificial intelligence has mainly been limited to expert systems that are good at their designed task. It has always been a challenge to find a situation where people interact with each other without knowing that the other 'person' may not be human. Robotic technology has yet to make something that significantly resembles a human well enough for them to replace something like an order taker at McDonalds. For example, replacing phone support with a software system runs into the problems of speech recognition and natural language processing. However, online chat began to offer an area for software systems to begin to interact with people in a way that computers can easily understand.

Online chat never really had a commercial driver behind it, until now...

Second Life marries a chat environment with a profit motive. Businesses can now interact with people through a virtual environment completely described in terms that a computer can understand. Natural language processing is now the only barrier to having effective simulation of a person. Businesses will not have to solve the speech recognition and robotic simulation problems as well as the natural language processing ones. More importantly, some of the particulars of Second Life such as traffic numbers are actively driving businesses to consider 'bots an effective business tool.

The 'barrier to entry' has been made very low, you only need a compiler and an Internet connection and you can begin to write your own 'bot, but Second Life added that magical twist, money. Now, people will have an economic incentive to develop better general artificial intelligence rather than expert systems. And this goes far beyond just having dance partners in a club, this can now strike at the very thing that drives most human technical innovation, sex.

Soon the ranks of sex workers may be joined by truely virtual escorts - no human involved. Have it press some XCite! buttons and go, "oh god, yes! you are *so* huge," and you are halfway to doing the 'bread and butter' of escorting in Second Life. Guys are already flocking to Second Life for virtual sex and paying money for coordinated chat and XCite button pressing.

It will start small, with a couple of incidents where it was discovered that an escort was a 'bot. There will be calls for more verifications, bot registration, etc. Linden Labs will wisely say nothing while the crowds of 'regulate everything I dislike' call for more bans and restrictions. Later, a 'big' scandal will unfold where it is revealed that a well known escort uses a 'bot to handle the 'tedious' parts of SLex. Linden Labs will resume having interactive help support in the client, while behind the scenes 'bots will handle the simple stuff and only escalate the issue to a human if it gets to a point it can't handle.

Eventually, the town halls where everyone gathers to complain about the bugs will be run almost entirely by 'bots replying, "We are actively working on that issue at the moment, we saw that it was important to the community, so we have dedicated developers to work on that and resolve it as rapidly as possible." Wisely, the complainers will soon begin sending 'bots to the town halls to repeat the same old, tired mantras. 'Bots will be talking to 'bots.

The men who are insecure now about possible having SLex with a guy pretending to be a woman are really going to have their egos crushed when they learn that 'SexyHooker69 Cummings' whom they've had a crush on and have spent thousands of Lindens on is really a 'bot.

Seriously though, the days of being able to tell if you are talking to a human or a 'bot without significant interaction are coming to an end. My original 'Only In Second Life' post pointed to a dramatic blurring of the lines where human pretended to be robot and the robot pretended to be human. It makes the issue of whether or not the 'bots are artificially inflating traffic numbers seem insignificant when half of the escort business could be replaced by them and few guys would notice.

No comments: