Second lease of life: researchers develop online character with reasoning abilities

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Thinking avatars in development

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March 12, 2008 Users worldwide have relished the opportunity to live out parallel existences in virtual worlds such as "Second Life", but the characters within those worlds have traditionally been mindless avatars only performing tasks as directed by their human puppet masters. Now, a team of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the U.S. is working to engineer characters with reasoning abilities similar to that of a child.

These super-life characters will be able to have beliefs and to reason about the beliefs of others as well as predicting and manipulating the behavior of even human players, with whom they will directly interact in the real, physical world. The characters will be created by coupling logic-based artificial intelligence and computational cognitive modeling techniques with the processing power of a supercomputer. This is not something you can achieve at home on your laptop! According to Selmer Bringsjord, head of Rensselaer’s Cognitive Science Department and leader of the research project, the logico-mathematical theory will include rigorous, declarative definitions of all of the concepts central to a theory of the mind, including lying, betrayal, and even evil.

The principles and techniques that humans deploy in order to understand, predict, and manipulate the behavior of other humans is collectively referred to as a “theory of mind.” Bringsjord’s research group is now starting to engineer part of that theory, which would allow artificial agents to understand, predict, and manipulate the behavior of other agents, in order to be genuine stand-ins for human beings or autonomous intellects in their own right. At a recent conference on artificial intelligence, the researchers unveiled the height of their success to date: “Eddie,” a 4-year-old child in Second Life who can reason about his own beliefs to draw conclusions in a manner that matches human children his age. To test Eddie’s reasoning powers, the group created a demo in Second Life that subjected their theory to a false-belief test. Eddie successfully passed the test, using the same reasoning as a four year old. The test can be viewed online.

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