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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 September 2007, 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK
Online worlds to be AI incubators
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

Screenshot of Second Life, Linden Labs
Artificial environments could be great places for AI's to learn
Online worlds such as Second Life will soon become training grounds for artificial intelligences.

Researchers at US firm Novamente have created software that learns by controlling avatars in virtual worlds.

Initially the AIs will be embodied in pets that will get smarter by interacting with the avatars controlled by their human owners.

Novamente said it eventually aimed to create more sophisticated avatars such as talking parrots and even babies.

Virtual adoption

"The virtual world provides the body," said Dr Ben Goertzel, founder and head of Novamente.

He said the company had developed a "Cognition Engine" that acted as the thinking part of the artificial intelligences it wanted to create.

This engine had some partially scripted behaviours and goals for the avatar under its control but was also capable of reasoning to work out novel ways to achieve its aims.

Dr Goertzel said business and research reasons drew Novamente towards using virtual worlds for its AI development.

There was likely to be a ready market for smart virtual pets in worlds such as Second Life and many others, he said.

"There are a lot of virtual pets out there and none of them have much intelligence," he said.

"We have a pretty fully functioning animal brain right now and we are hooking it up to the different virtual worlds," said Dr Goertzel. "There's not much doubt that we can make really cool artificial animals.

"They could be ambient animals that go around and try to achieve their own goals, or pets that you can give people so they teach them."

Initially Novamente would focus on pets such as dogs or monkeys but aimed to branch out afterwards.

"I'd really like to do virtual talking parrots," he said, "and then virtual babies. You would get one and it would be yours for the next 18 years."

It's a lot more practical to control virtual robots in simulated worlds than real robots
Dr Ben Goertzel
Also, said Dr Goertzel, smart virtual animals were likely to get a good reception among gamers and those that spend time in online worlds.

"The gaming industry has been one of the few places where AI has not been a dirty word," he said.

Many of the computer controlled characters in games are driven by basic AI programs that dictate how they behave when attacked, when they spot a player's character or how they interact.

Body language

On the research side, said Dr Goertzel, virtual worlds also solved the problem of giving an AI a relatively unsophisticated environment in which it could live and learn.

"I'm one of many AI theorists who believe that embodiment is important," he said. "Typing stuff back and forth does not give the AI much to go on in terms of understanding the world around it, or itself or its place in that world."

This desire to embody artificial intelligences led many to robots, he said, but that approach presented its own problems.

"Robots have a lot of disadvantages, we have not solved all the problems of getting them to move around and see the world," he said. "It's a lot more practical to control virtual robots in simulated worlds than real robots."

Novamente is working on avatars for different virtual worlds with The Electric Sheep company that specialises in producing artificial entities for online environments.

Dr Goertzel said Novamente was due to announce its first products and which worlds they would appear in at the Virtual Worlds conference being held in San Jose in early October.

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