I, Robot

I, Robot
A Brief History Of Artificial Life

Jim Rossignol | 27 Oct 2009 12:51
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Game designers have arguably been cashing in on this "automata effect" for years. As soon as gaming devices were able to display models with more fidelity than basic abstract shapes, we began to get artificial people. It's no mistake that Will Wright's greatest success lay in the lifelike models of The Sims. Valve, meanwhile, knew exactly what they were doing when they created Alyx Vance for the Half-Life 2 games. She was the logical extension of in-game non-player characters from previous decades - the automata of the videogame age. She was more than simply another moving target; instead, she pretended to be alive for your ongoing delight. Although we understand that she's not sentient in any sense, we nevertheless respond and react to her with a suspension of disbelief that few other game entities evoke. The nuances of interaction, such as her covering her eyes when you shine a flashlight in her face, are what make the illusion beguiling.

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But this isn't artificial intelligence. Instead, these systems mimic nature without ever really attempting to match its complexity. This is precisely what the early automata makers were exploring: They were creating illusions. The monk in the Holy Roman Emperor's court was only just complex enough to amuse the Emperor, and the same is true of game characters and gamers today.

Of course, the processing power of computers dwarfs the pneumatics and clockwork of previous centuries, allowing our inventors to create lifelike systems and examine unusual avenues that were inaccessible to those of earlier generations. The bizarre Seaman games on Dreamcast and PS2 took a rather different approach by creating a system that responded to our voice inputs. This gave the impression of a real artificial intelligence behind the screen - a scene reminiscent of Elektro responding to his handler's commands. However canned the responses were, it was intriguing to be able to observe the behavior of something that seemed autonomous, albeit only in a limited sense.

What neither automata nor videogame characters have ever been able to do, however, is fool us into thinking that they really are alive. Perhaps that's where the fascination lies: in the realization that they are indeed artifice. The sense of wonder that has arisen from automata across the centuries comes from pushing the boundaries of technology, from measuring our knowledge and creativity against the high benchmark of nature and watching the former inch ever closer to the latter. This could, one day, come to an end. When the virtual and the actual are indistinguishable and the person talking back to you from the screen might as well be real, will that sense of wonder be lost?

Perhaps, and that's when the history of automata will come to an end.

Jim Rossignol is an editor at RockPaperShotgun.com and the author of This Gaming Life, an account of the life of modern videogames and some of the people who play them.

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