Identity and Expression, Second Life

Philip Rosedale’s Artificial Intelligence (3): Avatar Agents?

Philip Rosedale wants to move us closer to the Singularity, at least according to an interview with the New Scientist, in which he says that his new company will “takes the concept of virtual life a lot further. I’m looking at what else we can digitise. How can we evolve human experience?” Which is to say: how can we kick start the ability of computers to contain digital versions of ourselves or, if not of ourselves exactly then all the information that floats around us.

This also lifts off of a comment he made to Time Magazine in which he said:

“We’re all looking at that and going, Oh, my gosh, are we gonna move the majority of our intellectual, creative, communicative activity into some sort of online domain? And I think the answer is yeah, in some way, and that is a pretty, pretty amazing thought.”

Now, for all the speculation by Hamlet and others that Philip is working on some kind of real life love machine, I don’t buy it for a second, and the comments above are validation.

Speculating about Rosedale is kind of like speculating about whether Apple will launch a tablet or not. In the big scheme of things, it probably doesn’t make that much difference, but we look to people like Steve Jobs or we read books called “What would Google do?” because it lets us hypothesize about the future, and whether we love them or hate them, agree with them or not, there are certain people who become the repositories for our dreams about the future.

One of the things I’ve written about frequently (and have typically been met with an almost yawning kind of silence, probably because I actually don’t know what I mean or am talking about) is the idea of the avatar as a repository. In my vision of the future, our avatars become a proxy which allow us to deal with issues of identity, privacy and on-line presence. When I’ve covered things like alts, I’ve made the point that we can’t restrict ourselves to thinking about avatars as having a one-to-one relationship to the typist behind them, that increasingly our avatars will contain all kinds of sub-routines and knowledge of their own (which is why I thought the movie Surrogates was so, um, stupid – not only did the surrogates not have the ability to add anything of their own, they only existed in-so-far as they were controlled, and they had really bad hair).

Whether this is what Philip is working on I had no idea. But the hypothesis keeps me amused: that we’re moving towards a time when our avatars are able to ‘toggle’ sub-routines and artificial intelligence on or off and start to act both independently of us and with direction from us even when we’re not entirely “there”.

Does this break the immersive quality of virtual worlds? Yes, in some ways. But I anticipate the day when you’re talking to my avatar – say a quick exchange of information, sending me an event listing or a news item, and you don’t know whether it’s me who responds, whether I’m in-world, whether my avatar is operating on its own, or whether I’m sending signals back to it through my iPhone.

Avatars can become both agents – able to interact and execute sub-routines to collate and store incoming or outgoing messages and whatnot, and will become information repositories, which have the added advantage of putting a ‘face’ to the data scraping and mining which we currently see as G-mail pages or RSS readers.

We’ll see where Philip really plans to take us, but if it’s in the direction of powering-up our avatars, it will be interesting to continue our journey into what once seemed like a hypothetical future but which, like much of the rest of the evolution of on-line and virtual technology, is upon us before we even had time to get used to living in today.


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