artificial intelligence

Podcast with Jeffrey Ventrella – on the Versatilist

Hey wiggy peeps,

I was recently interviewed on the Versatilist Podcast, by Patrick O’Shea.

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http://versatilist.podomatic.com/entry/2016-10-03T08_42_23-07_00

In this podcast, Patrick and I kick around lots of ideas on artificial life, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality. I describe my ongoing efforts to develop a kind of self-animated character that can thrive in our highly augmented future.

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Augmenting Nature…in Hollywood

Our upcoming presence at Digital Hollywood is likely to be a pivotal moment for Wiggle Planet. For one thing: I’ll be speaking on a panel with the likes of Paul Zak, Garry Hare, Christophe Morin, and Brian Selzer. We’ll be pontificating on brains, “neuro-marketing”, storytelling, and augmented reality.

John and JackieIn addition to this panel, Team Wiglet (John Pathfinder Lester and Jackie Van Winkle) will be doing acrobatic guerrilla marketing, and adding splashes of color among the men with suits. Should be a barrel of fun.

Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 7.38.17 PMBig execs with deep pockets will be making the rounds and looking for the next big thing. But we planetary wigglers do not expect to show up on their radar screens immediately. Hollywood is still very entrenched in the movie business and the cultural and intellectual zeitgeist that surrounds it. Consider these typical Digital Hollywood phrases: “Hollywood Brand Power: Strategic Concepts in Celebrity and creativity Across Platforms” and “Video Anytime Anywhere: Video Across Platforms – Television, Broadband and Mobile – Understanding the Value Proposition.”

We at Wiggle Planet, LLC have a soft, fuzzy-green sound to our music:

Human beings love life in all its forms; interacting with living things gives us great delight. This is one of the most powerful aspects of our connection to the natural world. Given that, we believe that our innovations in character animation technology, augmented reality, and artificial life are on the verge of bringing us something much more meaningful than what has ever been possible in films, games, and educational software.

Here’s the thing: everyone cares about climate change. Everyone knows that a deeper understanding of nature is a good value proposition for humanity (and business). Everyone cares about education, and many people now believe that school as an institution in America is crumbling at its foundation. We need to build new technology infrastructures that fuse learning, gaming, and socializing. And what better way to address these major seismic shifts than wacky wiggly characters that visit us from the invisible underworld via augmented reality?

I’m half-joking.

Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 8.19.23 PMAnd half-not joking. It sounds strange, I know. But I’m not known for doing things in a boring way. In all seriousness: we feel like we are in the middle of a convergence – where mobile technology, character animation, big data, and artificial intelligence can be pivoted around a growing interest in environmental awareness.

High Tech and Environmental Education: Strange Bedfellows?

Hell no.

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If you happen to be in LA around October 19-22, we would love to see you at the conference. Stop by and we’ll buy you a coffee. We’ll rub shoulders with celebs (or at least pretend) … and generally make a wiggly racket.

-Jeffrey

Mind Children for Children’s Minds

Dog vs. Robot Cute Dog Maymo

Hans Moravec wrote a book in 1990 called Mind Children, about robots and the future of humans and artificial intelligence. I haven’t read the book, but I did read Moravec’s “Human Culture: A Genetic Takeover Underway“, which influenced me greatly. I included it as required reading for an Artificial Life class I taught at Tufts in the 90’s.

As we approach the singularity, it will become increasingly evident that Darwinian evolution will have minimal effect as technological evolution races forward at ever-increasing speeds, leaving human genetic evolution in the dust. In a way, you could say that human evolution is indeed happening right now at a very high rate (that is, if you replace the ancient agents of replication (genes) with the more nimble agents of replication (memes)…and the emergent manifestation of interacting memes: human culture – and technology.

…which leads me to why I used Moravec’s book title in the title of this blog post. Currently, children have more than good old-fashioned cartoon characters and plastic dolls to play with. Their toys are coming to life.

When you add augmented reality with artificial intelligence, a new kind of animated personality begins to emerge.

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Real and imaginary are about to enter into a future dance in which they will whirl at such a velocity that we may have a hard time telling them apart.

But what are the consequences of animated characters that become more “alive” than ever before? Children are more prone to failing the Turing Test. So…will more realistic AI characters confuse their developing theories of mind?

Some argue that this is mostly positive; it simply fuels a child’s imagination, which already naturally blends real and imaginary as a matter of course.

The picture below is from an article titled: Neuroscientists identify brain mechanisms that predict generosity in children.

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This kind of research is being used by some toy manufacturers and game designers to teach kids social skills.

Let me just state an opinion, for the record:

If you want kids to learn how to socialize, there is no substitute for playing with REAL kids.

(A possible exception may be autistic kids who need tools to give them some non-face time to give them some training for the real thing.)

Now, why would I state that kids need to play with each other to learn to socialize, while at the same time eagerly developing self-animated characters in augmented reality?

Barry, Jeff, and Peck Peck

I believe the key is in the intent.

The way we must bravely enter into our technological future and to prepare that future for our children is to keep a clear distinction between real and imaginary – to stay on top of the game, as it were. And to give kids the tools to enhance their imaginations – while not distorting their sense of reality. This may become a challenge as screen-time and face-time blur with ever convincing digitally-enhanced experiences. But it is important to keep in mind.

We need to keep the problem of “robot morality” in the same bucket as age-old problems of how kids react sympathetically to cartoon characters.

That’s my opinion. What’s yours?

DRC____

-Jeffrey

Is “Artificial Life Game” an Oxymoron?

langtoncaArtificial Life (Alife) began with a colorful collection of biologists, robot engineers, computer scientists, artists, and philosophers. It is a cross-disciplinary field, although many believe that biologists have gotten the upper-hand on the agendas of Alife. This highly-nuanced debate is alluded to in this article.

Games

What better way to get a feel for the magical phenomenon of life than through simulation games! (You might argue that spending time in nature is the best way to get a feel for life; I would suggest that a combination of time with nature and time with well-crafted simulations is a great way to get deep intuition. And I would also recommend reading great books like The Ancestor’s Tale :)

Simulation games can help build intuition on subjects like adaptation, evolution, symbiosis, inheritance, swarming behavior, food chains….the list goes on.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 7.48.02 PMScreen Shot 2014-10-19 at 12.24.54 PMOn the more abstract end of the spectrum are simulation-like interactive experiences involving semi-autonomous visual stuff (or sound) that generates novelty. Kinetic art that you can touch, influence, and witness lifelike dynamics can be more than just aesthetic and intellectually stimulating.

These interactive experiences can also build intuition and insight about the underlying forces of nature that come together to oppose the direction of entropy (that ever-present tendency for things in the universe to decay).

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On the less-abstract end of the spectrum, we have virtual pets and avatars (a subject I discussed at a keynote I gave at VISIGRAPP Barcelona).

“Hierarchy Hinders” –  Lesson from Spore

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 8.18.59 PMWill Wright, the designer of Spore, is a celebrated simulation-style game designer who introduced many Alife concepts in the “Sim” series of games. Many of us worried that his epic Spore would encounter some challenges, considering that Maxis had been acquired by Electronic Arts. The Sims was quite successful, but Spore fell short of expectations. Turns out there is a huge difference between building a digital dollhouse game and building a game about evolving lifeforms.

Also, mega-game corporations have their share of social hierarchy, with well-paid executives at the top and sweat shop animators and code monkeys at the bottom. Hierarchy (of any kind) is generally not friendly to artificial life.

For blockbuster games, there are expectations of reliable, somewhat repeatable behavior, highly-crafted game levels, player challenges, scoring, etc. Managing expectations for artificial life-based games is problematic. It’s also hard to market a game which is essentially a bunch of game-mechanics rolled into one. Each sub-game features a different “level of emergence” (see the graph below for reference). Spore presents several slices of emergent reality, with significant gaps in-between. Spore may have also suffered partly due to overhyped marketing.

Artificial Life is naturally and inherently unpredictable. It is close cousins with chaos theory, fractals, emergence, and uh…life itself.

Emergence

alife graphAt the right is a graph I drew which shows how an Alife simulation (or any emergent system) creates novelty, creativity, adaptation, and emergent behavior. This emergence grows out of the base level inputs into the system. At the bottom are atoms, molecules, and bio-chemistry. Simulated protein-folding for discovering new drugs might be an example of a simulation that explores the space of possibilities and essentially pushes up to a higher level (protein-folding creates the 3-dimensional structure that makes complex life possible).

The middle level might represent some evolutionary simulation whereby new populations emerge that find a novel way to survive within a fitness landscape. On the higher level, we might place artificial intelligence, where basic rules of language, logic, perception, and internal modeling of the world might produce intelligent behavior.

In all cases, there is some level of emergence that takes the simulation to a higher level. The more emergence, the more the simulation is able to exhibit behaviors on the higher level. What is the best level of reality to create an artificial life game? And how much emergence is needed for it to be truly considered “artificial life”?

Out Of Control

Can a mega-corporation like Electronic Arts give birth to a truly open-ended artificial life game? Alife is all about emergence. An Alife engineer or artist expects the unexpected. Surprise equals success. And the more unexpected, the better. Surprise, emergent novelty, and the unexpected – these are not easy things to manage…or to build a brand around – at least not in the traditional way.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 9.04.07 PMMaybe the best way to make an artificial life game is to spread the primordial soup out into the world, and allow “crowdsourced evolution” of emergent lifeforms.  OpenWorm comes to mind as a creative use of crowdsourcing.

What if we replaced traditional marketing with something that grows organically within the culture of users? What if, in addition to planting the seeds of evolvable creatures, we also planted the seeds of an emergent culture of users? This is not an unfamiliar kind problem to many internet startups.

Are you a fan of artificial life-based games? God games? Simulations for emergence? What is your opinion of Spore, and the Sims games that preceded it?

This is a subject that I have personally been interested in for my entire career. I think there are still unanswered questions. And I also think that there is a new genre of artificial game that is just waiting to be invented…

…or evolved in the wild.

Onward and Upward.

-Jeffrey

The Open Brain

No, this is not a blog post about being open-minded.

Nor is it a blog post about brain surgery.

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It’s a blog post about Open-Sourcing the code of wiglets allowing others to develop artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms.

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The fact is, even though I have a graduate degree from MIT, I may not be the best one to write the AI code for wiglets.

Okay, maybe I am  the best … BUT, do I have the time? Is there any time left in the day as I try to start a company?

Bloody no.

And besides, open-sourcing the AI component of autonomous animated characters is totally reasonable, considering that the primary goal of our technology is to allow for user-generated content: digital goods created by all you people out there in user-land. I want the wonderful world of wiglets to emerge from the populace – not from the board rooms of marketing teams.

Your creativity and interest can be the driving factor for how these critters come into being, and eventually evolve into the muppets of the digital age.

So, how will we make the brain open-source?

The key is to use the four pillars of situated AI:

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Think of actuators as the body. Your body acts on the environment (and generally changes the environment in the immediate vicinity of the body). The sensors perceive the environment and inform the brain of what’s going on. The brain then takes it in and decides (or not) what to do.

Here’s the cool part: what happens inside of the brain can be just about anything. When I was at MIT, Marvin Minsky told a bunch of us that the brain is a magnificent hack: there is no single perfect AI algorithm. In fact, there are many many hacks that have been messily munged together over the course of animal evolution to give us the brains we have.

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It’s our frontal lobes that create the illusion that we are making clear, rational decisions – that our brains are well-designed.

This is why some of the early AI programmers made the mistake of looking for the perfect AI. It would seem (to them) that there must be a way to engineer that perfect-feeling of clarity that we call consciousness and rational thought.

But it’s just a feeling.

Uh, what’s my point? My point is that we can take this fact of animal intelligence and apply it to the simulation of wiglets. You (the folks who I’d like to be put in charge of building the brains of wiglets) get to use whatever you want to make wiglets do what they do.

Think of it as crowd-sourced AI.

You can use neural nets; you can use finite state machines; you can design a thousand if-then statements to account for every combination of stimuli; you can attach a big pipe to Google and use the power of the internet; you can make it completely random and hallucinogenic.

Uh, what?

blue_wiglet

Let’s start a Cambrian Explosion of Brain Design!

I have finished version 1 of the Brain Interface, which implements the sensors and actuators (the inputs and outputs). If you, or if anyone you know – knows the C++ language and would like to try out our new brain interface, let me know :)

-jeffrey@wiggleplanet.com