The future of artificial intelligence: The Borg?

The creator of Black & White is experimenting with new work on group minds - but unlike the Borg, the characters in the new game are already descending into bar brawls

Lionhead Studios, the creators of the seminal game Black & White, is working on a new game that extends the idea of the 'group mind' to give its characters the appearance of more realistic artificial intelligence.

Black & White, in which the gamer played as a god presiding over a world of characters that displayed artificial intelligent behaviour, used the notion of a group mind to enable the characters to dance together, for instance. Lionhead's new game, code-named Dmitry, will take the concept to a whole new level in which characters understand the consequences of various actions and can make decisions based on those consequences, while still being part of a group mind reminiscent of the Borg of Star Trek fame.

But unlike the Borg, characters in Dmitry can descend into chaotic behaviour. Already, early experiments with the game have resulted in bar brawls between characters.

The work is headed by Richard Evans, was responsible for much of the artificial intelligence in Black & White. Evans, who studied philosophy at Cambridge, is using a concept called 'social processes' to give his characters life.

According to Evans, we are surrounded by social processes. Just a few examples include a game of chess, the concept of an 'in crowd' at school, and a romantic engagement. Some social processes are short term, some last longer, some are competitive and some are collaborative.

The ability to perform within a social process is, said Evans, speaking at the Game Developers Conference in London's Earls Court Exhibition Centre, a foundational skill. "It is a deeper skill even than language itself," said Evans.

For full coverage of the Game Developers Conference see ZDNet's UK news focus: Game developers ponder their next move.

Crucially, for games, social processes imply a concept of understand the consequences of actions. "I was playing The Sims recently and noticed that a character disappeared in the middle of a conversation," said Evans. "The same thing happened in Black & White too -- a character went off for a poo in the middle of a conversation. It was clear they did not understand the social consequences of terminating a conversation in such an abrupt manner."

So what is a social process? In Evans' words, it is "a non-physical entity which influences the behaviour of agents (or characters). It does not command an agent to do something, but it issues requests and explains the consequences of not complying with those requests."

Evans offered the example of people cheering at a football match to help explain the idea. One theory, said Evans, is that people could have a belief about the effect of cheering, and so they might cheer when a goal is scored. "In the Social Process theory, cheering is a social process that requests each individual to perform a particular action (cheer)." Each individual then decides whether to comply based on his or her experience and situation. This is how characters in Dmitry will work.

"We have modelled a community," said Evans. "If someone is hurt then everyone will gather round and try to help." In Dmitry there are squares and hard guys, romances and arguments, bars and schoolyards. Characters even have the ability to dynamically create their own language, constructing simple sentences on a word by word basis.

A big part of the game will be for the player to build up his or her character to be accepted by social processes. "The hard guys will only let you join their social process if you have a certain appearance and behave in a certain way," said Evans. Just like every other character in the game, the player can only do certain things if the relevant social process has asked them to -- but of course the consequences have to be weighed up.

And it's not always going to be an easy decision. "Unlike Black & White, which was very black and white morality-wise, with just one ethical system, Dmitry will have many different notions of naughtiness in different social groups," said Evans.

"The hard guys might request you to vandalise something, but that will send messages to other social processes and they will request other characters to come and beat you up," Evans said.

The first simulation Lionhead Studios put together was based in a bar, because in bars many different social processes can overlap. The results were unexpected. "We had two groups of hard guys. When the two groups were not holding status competitions between themselves, they picked on other characters. But then they ended up in a massive brawl as they picked on each other in an effort to increase their status, trying to impress each other."

However, it won't all be so chaotic. "We have an overall moral community social process," Evans said. "It contains a notion of naughtiness and of degrees of naughtiness, and it will periodically send out requests to the good guys to beat up the bad guys."

All these messages passing between social processes and agents, and the work involved in each characters looking through decision trees to decide whether it should comply with a particular request, will take a lot of computing power. "We can't have hundreds of agents looking at big decision trees all the time in real time while rendering the landscape, so we'll do a lot of off-line pre-computation of decision trees before the game starts," said Evans. "We're not sure just how much we can accomplish yet."

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