1. What is it about
You bump into a pretty girl on your way to Mount Blue. She has a very nice body with exotic flowing dress which dances on her body as she moves. She has caught your attention. You decide to say hi. She responds and you start a casual chit chat with her. She seems very nice. Her name is Red Roosa. You are already thinking about changing your plans. She seems very friendly and very relaxed. You ask her if she is interested to go to a Night Club you have recently discovered. It’s new and is quite flashy. They have these new interactive dance routines which means you can influence the dance for the group as a whole. Mmmmm, going with her should be fun. You take her there, and well, you go for a dance. It’s incredible. She is really a nice person. The dance heats up and you are just wondering what to do next. Anything is possible …
Now, imagine if suddenly someone who was also in the dance club sent you an instant message saying “Not to ruin your night or anything, but did you know Red Roosa is a bot?”
You reply only to him, so that Red Roosa can’t see your chat, “Oh really! I didn’t know. Ok, well, thanks for letting me know.” You get back to her and carry on from where you were as if nothing has changed …
Avatars in a virtual world usually represent a person. However, an avatar can also be driven by an artificial intelligence. This is what the guy was referring to when he said she is a bot (robot).
A bot in a virtual world can look like any other and may prove to be more difficult to differentiate with real humans. Interaction between virtual robots and humans will become more complex and commonplace as virtual worlds become mainstream.
2. Where is the fun
- Being able to set a large number of virtual robots to compete against each other in a world that is dynamic and includes humans.
- Interact with entities without regard to their artificiality. Human or not, you are going to have fun.
- Be confronted with entities that are unimaginable or simply alien. Interacting with intelligent creatures that are life-like, with real-world real-time graphics can be breath taking.
- Single player games become even more interesting as AI (artificial intelligence) entities become more intelligent.
3. What are its Applications
For a long time many researchers liked to carry out their robotics research in simulations. In fact they still do. Of course, the problem with this approach is that you first need to make sure your simulators are valid so that you could use them to develop your robot. The simulators were never a true representation of the world, because they were abstract. Hence, even if you could prove that your AI entity is capable of performing intelligent moves, you could not claim that this will be true in real life. The problem became so serious that a famous researcher used to say that, “simulations are bound to succeed”. What he meant was that you improved your robot design until it always succeeded in a simulation environment. This could give you a false feeling of confidence that your robot is also going to succeed in the real world.
Simulators are usually abstract and don’t represent real world dynamism. Everything seems to be based on logical calculations so patterns may occur. However, this is about to change.
Virtual worlds are on the rise. The difference between these worlds and the simulators is that they contain humans who continuously change the world and are also affected by real world issues. As a result what happens in the virtual world is very dynamic. In short, the world is not calculated. You won’t be able to model a virtual world (with humans in it) and predict what happens next. If you can make an AI or a robot that can successfully navigate this world and interact with its objects and its citizens as if it is one of them, you have achieved a breakthrough. Welcome, to Virtual Robotics.
4. How developed is it
Aside from games, there aren’t that many popular virtual worlds yet and of course the most famous one is Second Life. Games can provide a suitable environment and they have been used by developers to implement AI entities. However, open worlds such as Second Life have more depth. There are already signs that serious research is starting to take place in these worlds.
The term virtual robotics is sometimes used to represent simulated environments suitable for cheaper robotics experiments (Virtual Robotics Lab, Robotics). So instead of having a robotics lab, you can upload your software to someone else’s lab and to their robot and get them to do the experiment for you. So you never physically touch the robot, you just use it to test your software. However this meaning is different from what is intended here. A suitable virtual world for proper robotics research needs to have external dynamic inputs such as interacting humans. Once these virtual worlds become sophisticated and popular, there will be no reason left to try other simulators. A robot needs to be able to tackle such virtual worlds before it can successfully understand the real world.
A fantastic demonstration of virtual robotics is perhaps the Ants Simulation in Second Life. It uses the latest research in collective robotics on how ants communicate with each other and collect food using pheromones and ant colony optimisation techniques.
5. How can it be improved
Virtual worlds are still immature and their APIs (Application Peripheral Interfaces) have not yet become standard or exposed for third-party developers (open source software exists, but they are very popular). In time, interfaces to these systems will become standard and more researchers will jump in. The virtual worlds are not fully realistic either and as they get more real, the attraction of performing virtual experiments will increase too.
6. What does it lead to
Robotics is still in its infancy and cost of developing physical robots has always been high and progress has been slow. The field will take off as soon as it becomes cheaper to develop novel techniques and quickly and cheaply test them in an appropriate dynamic environment. One thing is for sure; virtual robotics will become very popular and an important field on its own right.
In fact, it is likely that the first AI that passes the Turing Test will be developed in a virtual world as opposed to the real world. Watch out for the Virtual World AI Championships taking place by 2015.