Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When A Video Game Comes To Life

            For those of you who have been hooked on the Super Mario video games, artificial intelligence has created a new twist.  In an article in – “ ‘Social Al’ lets Mario, Luigi, Yoshi and Toad learn how to save the princess on their own” (2/4/16) Dario Borghino explores some new software that allows video games to operate more independently from the video game player.  In effect, the video game characters work together to solve problems through their interactions with each other, through communicating with and learning from one another.  Each one of these characters is given a different skill and a different ultimate goal.  The characters have to learn how to cooperate with each other in order to complete a task.  In their interactions with each other, they learn from each other’s behavior and through a “probablilistic algorithm”, they develop insights into how the world works.  This knowledge then helps the four characters to work together.  The software allows these video game characters to become semi-independent complex behavioral entities.  The purpose of the transformation of these video game characters is to act as models for applications that “include intelligent social support systems and swarms of modular robots that learn to perform complex actions on little human instructions.”

            But what is important for our purposes is the impact that intelligent video game characters can have on humans.  In previous articles, we were talking about the mirroring and modeling that could occur as a result of humans interacting with computers, robots and other complex machines.  The defined, discrete, angular processes of these machines cause humans to feel there is something imperfect about their own flowing, blendable , continual animal-like movements, and this impact from the machines gradually causes the humans to subtly and unconsciously model themselves after the machines.

            Now we are going to be dealing with what are, in effect, vacuumized substance-less technological figures that people will experience not through external world reality, but through screen reality.  And I am sure that the “Social Al” software will never simply remain a research tool.  Some way will be found to commercialize it and make it available to the general public.  Somehow, these semi-independently operating video characters can potentially, in their own way, have as much effect on humans as the technological figures that are made of material substance: namely complex machines, computers and robots.

            The idea that an algorithm can give video characters the capacity for what will appear as spontaneous interaction will mean that the boundaries between these characters and humans will be considerably blurred.  Granted that these characters are cartoon-like, but the fact that they  have the capacity for human speech and will be speaking in English, and will have the capacity for what appears to be spontaneous social interaction, means that, in an important way, they are almost like an evolutionary offshoot of humans.

            Because they are apparently independently acting vaccumized anthropomorphic entities, these characters in “Social Al” have many similarities to spiritual beings in a spiritual world.  And this is different from more typical video images of humans in movies and television programs, because we know on one level that these video images are representations of complex behavioral entities – humans – that have an existence in external world reality.  “Social Al” characters are also different from traditional cartoon characters, because traditional cartoon characters have no capacity to act independently from those humans that have created them.  The whole existence of a traditional cartoon character resides in a fabricated narrative or a series of fabricated narratives that, once created, cannot be spontaneously altered by the character in any way.  To the extent that the character comes to life and acts across a flow of time, it is intrinsically embedded in its story or stories.

            The software of “Social Al” has a potentially liberating effect for video game characters, freeing them from ongoing interventions by humans into the flow of their screen lives.  At the same time, it provides another whole category of complex behavioral entities to blur the boundaries as to what is human and to potentially diminish the intrinsic humanity of humans.

            This column has already dealt extensively with the effects of connections between humans and the complex behavioral entities of modern machines, computers and robots.  But here is a complex behavioral entity that has no material substance.  This video character is an entity that can interact with other entities of its kind and create spontaneous human-like narratives inside a different kind of complex behavioral entity – the video game – that in its own way has provided the basis of mirroring and modeling for humans as a result of ongoing interaction with it.

            There are some significant differences between the immortality of a video game character in the “Social Al” software and a robot.  In a robot, parts do break down, but they can be replaced by other parts, thus keeping the entity of the robot running.  Eventually, if all the parts are replaced, the reconstructed robot no longer is physically in any way the same as the original robot before part replacement.  What can be said to provide continuity to the original robot is the robot essence, the original mental concept created by humans.  This would also be true of the human-like robots, the androids.

            An entity related to the robot would be the cyborg: the combination of human and robot parts to make a new hybrid entity.  To the extent that a cyborg relies on prosthetic parts to maintain its immortality, eventually robot parts could replace all the organic human parts, and eventually the cyborg could slide into becoming a robot.  And then the question is whether or not there would be a way of transferring human consciousness to the robot head.  Not an easy assignment.

            A video game character like Mario, once it is animated by “Social Al” software does not have to worry about ongoing material decay.  Material substance can decay, material substance can perish.  When one is dealing with vacuumized entities, one does not have to deal with decay and perishability.  Without material substance, there is no material decay or perishability.  Granted the video game can be turned off, in which case the video game character exists then only in a dormant state.  But one never has to worry about the video character falling apart physically, and one doesn’t have to worry about ongoing physical maintenance to keep the immortality going.

            So we can say that identification with a software-based complex behavioral entity can potentially lead to a greater sense of real immortality than identification with the hardware of complex machines, computers and robots.  To bring up ideas discussed previously, the lack of material substance in a seemingly spontaneously acting digital character like Mario, creates in him a similarity to a spiritual being.  And one of the quickest surest ways to achieve a real immortality is to become a god.  So if the “Social Al” software becomes popular for researchers, the average gamer will find a way to have frequent access to a god-like character, a character the identification with which can lead to an experience of godliness and immortality for him, the gamer.

            Of course, it is just an experience.  It is like a drug high that occupies time that could be spent creating a solid surrogate immortality through achievements and relationships in external world reality.  Becoming god-like through semi-independent Super-Mario characters is an illusion, one that takes up time that could be used living in rich vibrant external world experiences and making, receiving and preserving organic imprints and preparing for death in a more authentic way through a surrogate immortality.  In today’s world, modern technology is creating so many illusions of real immortality.  The question is whether or not we choose to pass our lives being sucked into these illusions.

            And while we get sucked into the screen world reality of these semi-independent video game characters, robots that function in external world reality are improving their own independence through improved artificial intelligence and could eventually displace people who will become paralyzed in the equivalent of video game opium dens.  Something to think about.

(c) 2016 Laurence Mesirow

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