Volume 2, Issue 3
3rd Quarter, 2007

Trajectories to the Heavens

William Sims Bainbridge, Ph.D.

Page 4 of 6

Much nearer to home and to today, space enthusiasts tend to be very critical of the plans to return to the moon that have been developed by NASA and the Bush administration, seeing them as a repeat of the Apollo program lacking in innovation. I suggest that the situation may be more favorable than these critics imagine, because NASA’s New Vision relies upon extensive cooperation between humans and robots to do work on the lunar surface, and this collaboration could promote development of semi-autonomous robots incorporating human standards of judgment. This is another possible route to personality capture, in which our machines gradually become more and more like us in order to serve our needs better. The logical but unintended result could be the emergence of machines that possess many human qualities and thus would qualify to become the first generation of human colonists on other worlds.

Virtual Worlds

For a half century I have been interested in electronic games, ever since I wired up a “Geniac” [1] to play tic-tac-toe, and it has been fascinating to see them evolve recently into online virtual worlds. My first experience with Second Life (SL) [2], a virtual world that is more like a design studio than a game, was in August 2006 at the annual meetings of the World Transhumanist Association [3] in Helsinki, Finland. A virtual auditorium allowed people around the world to attend via Internet. They would see two projected images, one of the lecturer and the other of his PowerPoints. At the same time, they could discuss the content of the talk with each other. Then, in January 2007, I began a major anthropological research project in World of Warcraft (WoW), the marvelous and unprecedentedly popular massively multiplayer online questing environment.

One of the interesting differences between SL and WoW is how they describe the beings through which the user enters the virtual world. In Second Life, the user creates an avatar. This Hindu word originally refers to a manifestation of a god within the world. Christians do not conceptualize Jesus as an avatar of Jehovah, but the concept is similar, god became flesh, deity incarnate, with the implication that any given deity might have multiple incarnations. Other religions possessed the concept of avatar, without necessarily having a special world for it. Jupiter, for example, appeared to Europa in the form of a bull. In his 1992 novel, Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson first applied the term avatar to a computerized representation of a person within a virtual world. Fundamental to the notion is that an avatar is in some sense the person, reflecting much of the individual personality, although with some minor adjustments. For example, I met European futurist Giulio Prisco at the Helsinki conference, then later encountered his SL avatar, Giulio Perhaps. Now, when my memory conjures up an image of him, it is Perhaps I see, not Prisco, although they do resemble each other.

World of Warcraft does not have avatars, but characters. One reason may simply be that the term avatar was not familiar to a mass audience. But the term character implies that the virtual person may not represent the player, or that the player may conceptualize the character independently of himself. For example, when I ran Mario through Nintendo’s Super Mario World, or later through the three-dimensional 1996 game Super Mario 64 (which falls just short of being a virtual world because it does not contain other people), I never imagined I was a short, Italian plumber with a moustache. We all identify to some extent with fictional characters, as we do with other human beings with whom we interact, but that does not make them our avatars. They could be our puppets, our friends, our tools, or some as-yet unnamed aspect of ourselves without representing our total identity. Avid WoW players often have multiple characters, thereby to some degree having distinct personalities. That is certainly the case for the ten characters I had created in World of Warcraft by August 2007. I have a sense that all of them have somewhat distinct personalities, although all are also extensions of myself.

The relevance for the present topic becomes clear if we imagine allowing the avatars or characters to continue to act even when their owner is offline or dead. Indeed, to the extent that they are reflections of the owner, then they are also tools for archiving the owner’s personality. I noted this possibility obliquely in my frankly cautious article, “The Scientific Research Potential of Virtual Worlds,” published in the establishment journal, Science:

"Some studies could examine how humans conceptualize their own avatars or characters, while others could focus on mutual perceptions during social interaction. A third category of studies could look at how humans react to the currently rather simple AIs. A fourth could explore social cognition by designing ever more complex and lifelike AIs, watching their interactions with people, and even modeling them on specific human individuals to better understand the cognitive processes that shape human behavior." (Bainbridge, 2007c: 475)

In January 2007, Maxrohn the human priest entered Azeroth just outside Northshire Abbey in Elwynn Forest, a short hike from the capital city of Stormwind. Over the following months, he undertook hundreds of quests, killed thousands of enemies, and entered about forty other zones in World of Warcraft. Literally every step he took was entered into a computer and potentially could have been saved and analyzed. He developed relationships with others, as when Memra and Malius invited him to join the Shadow Clan guild. While he liked this guild and admired its leaders, he later transferred to a somewhat larger guild, Winged Ascension, to which Memra and Malius had earlier transferred. As a priest, he was especially interested to learn about the various religious traditions, by reading ancient books that could be found here and there in libraries or storage rooms, by receiving formal training in magical spells and alchemy recipes, and by conversing with other people. He was not very adept at economic exchange, but he very actively dealt with merchants and even occasionally used the Stormwind auction house.

Maxrohn was the character I relied upon most heavily in my participant observation ethnography of World of Warcraft, and his every action reflected in some way my own personal style, perceptions, and reactions. I do not have a good estimate of the amount of data that could have been automatically and easily collected about his behavior over the five hundred hours I acted through him, but clearly it is far into the megabyte range.

Given my experience programming artificial intelligence computer simulations (Bainbridge, 2006b), I am confident that it would be possible to model with at least some level of accuracy the future behavior of Maxrohn, based on his past behavior. This is not the place for technical details, but a number of behavioral parameters are relatively distinct from each other and capable of reasonably reliable statistical projection, even before one developed a rule-based system that captured his (or my) habitual tactics and strategies. Thus, when my work with Maxrohn is done, it would be possible to program an AI to continue to act in accordance with my patterns.

I can imagine a future version of World of Warcraft in which this is the intention for all players. After a human player’s work was done, the character could become one of the so-called NPCs (non-player characters). At present, the number of NPCs falls far short of the hypothetical populations of the cities and zones of the area, and in geographic terms the population density is low, as well. Therefore, it would be quite feasible to allow all players to transmute into AIs. Then, realistic battles of some size could be staged between armies, and much of the currently ignored work of every-day life could be carried out. Merchants would no longer charge fixed prices and interact “mechanically,” but would differ on their preferences and interaction styles as reflections of the personalities of former players. There are actually hundreds of separate instantiations of World of Warcraft, running on different Internet servers, to accommodate the roughly nine million players, although only a fraction are online at any given moment. Thus, it is quite reasonable to imagine slightly improved WoW infrastructure could sustain a few million autonomous avatars (AAs), even after their biological players had died.

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Footnotes (Additional References on Page 6)

1. Geniac - an educational toy billed as a "computer" designed and marketed by Edmund Berkeley from 1955 through the 1960s. The name stood for "Genius Almost-automatic Computer." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geniac August 14, 2007 4:47PM EST

2. SecondLife - Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its Residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by a total of 8,845,676 Residents from around the globe.
http://secondlife.com/ August 14, 2007 4:48PM EST

3. World Transhumanist Association - An international nonprofit membership organization which advocates the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities. They support the development of and access to new technologies that enable everyone to enjoy better minds, better bodies and better lives. In other words, we want people to be better than well.
http://www.transhumanism.org/index.php/WTA/index/ August 14, 2007 3:45PM EST

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