Simulated society may generate virtual culture

 作者:岑嬷坤     |      日期:2019-03-03 02:14:01
By Will Knight (Image: Ben Paechter) Virtual computer characters more accustomed to battling deranged alien monsters are about to take part in a unique social experiment. A society of virtual “agents” – each with a remarkably realistic personality and the ability to learn and communicate – is being crafted by scientists from five European research institutes who hope to gain insights into the way human societies evolve. The project, known as New and Emergent World models Through Individual, Evolutionary and Social Learning – or NEW-TIES – brings together experts in artificial intelligence, linguistics, computer science and sociology. It is backed by a consortium consisting of the University of Surrey and Napier University in the UK, Tilberg and Vrije Universities in the Netherlands and Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary. The experiment will see about 1000 agents live together in a simulated world hosted on a network of 50 computers based at the various institutions involved. Each agent will be capable of various simple tasks, like moving around and building simple structures, but will also have the ability to communicate and cooperate with its cohabitants. Though simple interaction, the researchers hope to watch these characters create their very own society from scratch. Every character in the simulated world will need to eat to survive, and will be able to learn from their environment through trial and error – learning, for example, how to cultivate edible plants with water and sunlight. In addition, characters will be able to reproduce by mating with members the opposite sex and their offspring will inherited a random collection of their parents “genetic” traits. Perhaps most importantly, however, by pointing to objects and using randomly generated “words”, characters should be able to conjure up their very own language and communicate with others inside their world. And this language may bear little resemblance to anything spoken in human societies. “It’s quite possible they will develop a language that we have to interpret,” says Ben Paechter at Napier University in Scotland. “They may discuss things in ways we find difficult to understand.” However, the ability to communicate could enable these agents to develop complex cultural activities resembling those found in small human societies. “A long-term aim is to see if we can get culture to emerge,” Paechter adds. “This way, we might learn something about the way human societies evolve.” So far, the project scientists have built half of the engine needed to power the virtual world and have begun experimenting with individual agents. They have also adapted a graphical engine used by the popular shoot-em-up game Counter Strike, in order to render their agents visually. Nigel Gilbert, another of the project researchers at the University of Surrey, says it would be particularly interesting if the agents were to start using non-functional items in a symbolic way, or develop ritual practices. “One can’t do experiments with real societies,” he told New Scientist. “And, obviously, it’s a big leap of faith. But it should be better than anything we’ve had before.” Gilbert adds that a programming interface will be made publicly available, enabling other researchers to carry out similar experiments using the parameters of the NEW-TIES virtual world. But not everyone is convinced that it will yield valuable results. “We have real human societies that grow up on their own within computer-generated fantasy worlds,” says Edward Castronova, an expert in online gaming worlds at Indiana University in the US. “The most sensible research project, it seems to me, would be to study these societies directly, rather than conjure artificial ones.” Castronova suggests that the synthetic nature of such a world will undermine its potential. “Inferences from an entirely artificial system are always going to be weakened by the artificiality,” he told New Scientist. “There’s no reality check.” Nevertheless, the researchers behind NEW-TIES hope to have seen some spectacular results by the time the project comes to an end in 2007. “It’s incredibly ambitious, and it may be that, at the end of 3 years, we say we need at least another 30,