Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Watching A God At Work

I have just recently signed on as a backer to the Grandroids project. As a backer, I get access to a special website where Steve Grand provides detailed progress reports (for example, recently he got the motor system working and tested it out by giving the creature a seizure).

For those of you who don't know, 20 years ago Steve Grand made the first game of my favorite series, the Creatures series. In this series, you raise little creatures called norns (at least you're supposed to, but it's a very open-ended game so you could instead leave them struggle to survive on their own, do experiments on them, run game show type activities while getting forum members or blog commenters to vote on them, the possibilities are pretty much endless). It's not like most artificial pets games, for one big reason - the norns are alive. They have their own internal biochemistry - they digest food, breathe, get sick or poisoned, they even have ATP and ADP. They have a neural network brain that can learn from experience and decide what to do. And they have a genetics code that decides the structure of both, which is inherited from the parents but with a few random mutations - which means they can actually evolve.

However, this had to run on computers in the 1990s. So the norns are very simple creatures, by real-life standards (even though by digital standards they're the most complicated life simulation so far). A single worker ant would beat them in intelligence. Their biochemistry didn't require conservation of energy, so sooner or later they all evolve into immortals. (This is most well-known in Docking Station, where the warp system that allowed players to trade norns also allowed many generation lines that were far longer than the patience of any players.) Their motor control consisted of genes specifying animation poses and other genes stringing those poses together, allowing for some very unrealistic motor disabilities (such as a disability where, when angry, they'd step on the spot instead of moving forward, but any other time they walked fine).

That's where Grandroids comes in. Steve Grand no longer has anything to do with the Creatures franchise - this is his new project. The Grandroids (which will not be called that, by the way) will have most, if not all, of the above design issues fixed. They will have much more complex biochemistry, based on some of the features of real-life chemistry. They will have a motor system much like ours, meaning the kinds of motor disabilities they get will also be much like ours. And although we have no idea yet how smart they'll be, Steve Grand's goalpoint is orangutans, which are almost as smart as humans. Their genetics will also be more complicated, and at the same time more familiar to many users because it's more similar to mammalian genetics.

Some of the backers have jokingly compared Steve Grand to God, and vice versa. Which brings me to a new philosophical question. I don't know how smart the Grandroids will be, but either they, or some future project building on this one, might involve creatures smart enough to have their own culture, their own belief system, their own religion. They may be smart enough that people could tell them about Steve Grand, and they would understand that he created them. From their perspective, Steve Grand is, quite literally, God, with the players being lesser gods controlling their individual universes.

What impact would this knowledge have on their cultures? Certainly some players may tell them the story of Steve Grand, and others may not. Those who do tell the story will each tell it a little differently. What impact might that have?

Furthermore, each player has a different playing style, which will have a different impact on their lives. They may have a kind, nurturing god who cures their sick, teaches their young and protects them all from the dangers in their world. They may have an absentee god who hatches the first generation and then has minimal involvement, returning much later when the wolfling run is over. They may have a newbie god who tries to care for them but speaks gibberish to them, confuses them by calling things by the wrong names, and punishes or rewards them pretty much at random. They may have a mad scientist god who hatches children with serious disabilities, puts them through weird tests, or creates strange new objects for them to interact with (some of which may be intentionally or unintentionally harmful). They may even have a sadistic god who enjoys watching them suffer, and who only helps them in order to ensure that they survive for more torture.

Each of those gods will bring a very different experience, and this, too, might shape their culture. If, like Christians, they see god as an attachment figure, they may react the same way that they would to a caring or neglectful parent. (I'm guessing the first generation especially may see us that way, given that we'd be their only parents.) This may impact on how they treat their own children (assuming they raise their children, unlike norns). Or they may view god more like a king, and see in their god's actions the way an authority figure should manage their underlings.

If multiple players share the same world, or if they get traded or warped between players, they may even see different gods managing things very differently. For example, some norn torturers posted norns they'd tortured on their websites, and other players downloaded these norns and tried to rehabilitate them. It's pretty much lost on norns, but maybe these Grandroids would come to interesting insights based on this contrast.

Lastly, what impact might this have on human culture? If Grandroids becomes well known, will it cause a shift in how we view life? Will religious people draw parallels between Steve Grand or Grandroids players and their own God, for example wonder if God is giving us a wolfling run and the end times will come when he decides to return and see what we've evolved into? Will ethicists speculate on what rights Grandroids deserve, similar to how they speculate about animals? Will researchers write papers using Grandroids as analogues to humans? Lastly, what will the next generation think? People who played Creatures as children are now adults. When the people who played Grandroids as kids have grown up, how will they see life and the universe?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions. And some of them may be my imagination running wild, and the Grandroids won't be in a position to raise those questions. But still, it's incredible to watch new life being made, and wonder about the meaning of life.

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Blogger Unknown said...

What a delightful post, Ettina! I do hope my work raises just those questions in people's minds. One of the most important reasons I study artificial life is to give people an alternative "species" that messes with our innate, unquestioned assumptions about how we treat more familiar creatures, including our fellows. Most of the bad things in this world come from unquestioned assumptions and unintended bigotry, and until we discover real aliens (or even after we do) I think it's good for us to examine ourselves in relation to something familiar yet unfamiliar.

As for what sorts of gods we might be, I'm a deeply confused and perplexed god! I like to understand things by building them to see if I can make them work, and of course half the time I discover my thinking was pathetically naive and primitive. Perhaps that same problem explains the Old Testament! ;-)

- Steve

10:41 AM  
Blogger Paradox15 said...

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7:41 AM  
Blogger Paradox15 said...

Interesting I was thinking about how the player would interact with the Grandroid’s universe the other day and realised that free will could be seen as relative. For example since the player can influence the Grandroid’s universe but since they exist outside that universe as experienced by the creatures within it, their universe is deterministic and they do not really have free will even though they think they do. But the player’s actions are only deterministic in regards to our own universe not the Grandroid’s one so relative to the artifical universe we have free will and it’s inhabitants don’t.

We also have supernatural powers in their universe being able to do things they have no natural mechanism to replicate, for instance it’s possible we can suddenly materialise a new object in there world which they can’t...a miracle.

But our god like actions are actually limited by what the universes architect allowed, e.g. a player can’t take an action the creator didn’t allow them, although new things can be developed within the limit allowed.

It makes you think about the concept of a God, they may have free will relative to our universe and abilities we could not replicate and view as outside nature, but the actions they can take would still be defined and deterministic within their own universal frame of reference and their interactions with our universe restrained in some ways, if a god like or “supernatural” being did exist.

A good example of a miracle, if I exported a creature from grandroids and later imported it into a different environment e.g. from grassy plains to a snowy mountain range the creature would believe it had been instantaneously teleported from one place to another a feat it could never replicate however advanced it’s science became, but which is obviously simple and not at all difficult for me if the system allows me that interaction.

Anyway good blog I think this is all fun to consider….how do we know our universe isn’t someone else’s simulation, maybe god is a programmer in a higher order universe and our universe is a simulation in which our consciousness has evolved. I can’t see how we could know.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Paradox15 said...

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