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Believable Agents

Believable Agents

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Published by Frederick Turner

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Published by: Frederick Turner on Feb 27, 2009


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The Fractal Actor on the Fractal Stage: Believability, Agency, Nonlinearity, andBeautyby Brian Moore and Frederick Turner1. The Believable as LifelikeBrendaLaurel's fine book Computers as Theatre is a major step toward a historicsynthesis between computer theory and the humanities. She argues that the mostnatural and usable model for human work in the computer environment is theater;that we do not need to reinvent the wheel in developing a set of principles forhow to make this cybernetic theater work, since there already exists a body ofexpertise on this subject which is over four thousand years old; that Aristotle,in his Poetics, has the best general summary of this expertise; that our work witha computer should have a satisfying plot, as a drama does, with a beginning,middle, and end; and that we, the users, should be the guest stars of the show.Laurel's book admirably traces how the linearity of classical Greek thought can beused as a map for the linearity of a good interactive experience with a computer.To the extent that a drama can be what William Carlos Williams called a poem--"amachine made of words," Laurel's model is the right way to go. But there isanother aspect to poetry and drama--and also, we believe, to the computer/humancomposite experience. A good play is not only rational, linear, and partlypredictable in its construction, but also, mysteriously, irrational, nonlinear,and unpredictable. It is precisely in the interplay between our reasonableexpectations of what will happen next, and the surprises that actually occur (butwhich we realize with hindsight are perfectly consistent) that the pleasure--andthe believability!--of plot and story really lies. A good story is bothunpredictable and retrodictable. Only one known class of mathematical or physicalobjects meets that criterion--that is, nonlinear algorithmic or dynamical systems,with strange attractors that have a fractal form. What we wish to do in thispaper is to explore the nonlinear substance of believable plot, character, andmise-en-scene; and use that substance to flesh out Laurel's useful framework.Aristotle, like most of the classical Greeks, was both fascinated and repelled bysurds--or irrational numbers, as we usually call them now. Surds are usuallyproduced by a mathematical algorithm that is nonlinear, such as the calculation ofthe Fibonnaci series for the golden section ratio, or the square root algorithmfor Pi. The classical Greeks equated rationality, which was for them among thehighest of the values, with natural numbers, integer ratios, and linear processes;when they eventually developed algebra, it was in the form of diophantineequations, which have whole-number solutions, rather than infinitesimal calculus,which had to wait over fourteen hundred years after Diophantus, until the arrivalof Newton, Leibniz, and Descartes. Calculus itself, however, is still linear inits answers, though it involves the consideration, and cancelling-out, of infiniteregresses. It was not until this century, and the advent of really fastcomputers, that truly nonlinear objects and processes, such as the Mandelbrot Setand the Lorenz attractor, could be given systematic study. But artists and poetshave always, in a practical, empirical, and tacit way, known about nonlinearityand its fundamental role in giving inexhaustible life and substance to theircreations. Deconstructionist literary critics have recently stumbled on some ofthe superficial characteristics of the nonlinear process at work, andmisinterpreted them as a general skepticism about the possibility of meaning.Certainly, linear meaning is hard to fix to a world that is always interactingwith itself; but there is a very substantial and vital nonlinear meaning that hasalways been evolving within nature, and of which we human beings are a peculiaroutgrowth. The experience of that meaning can be roughly compared to thedelightful vertigo we feel looking into the infinite depths of a good Julia Setgraphic--or the pleasure of looking at clouds, crystal growth, fern fronds,snowflakes, sunflower heads, the bodies of animals, and the turbulence of rapidwaters, all of which work according to the same principles. This quality--we havebeen using the terms "vital," "meaning," "substance," "life," "unpredictable-yet-retrodictable"--is, we believe, crucial to "believability." Another way to putthis idea is to say that agency is a special property of living organisms, whichactively alter their environment for reasons of their own; to say that an agent is
believable is tantamount to saying that it is lifelike. Finally, this quality,this combination of complexity, internal integrity, and rich relationship with theenvironment, has an ancient name: beauty. For our agents to be believable theymust be lifelike and beautiful.2. A Recipe for Lifelike AgencyHow, then, might weprovide the rich nonlinear texture that gives life to the agents we meet in thereal world and in fiction? This question has two aspects: one concerns theinternal dynamics of the agent, its inner life and intelligence; and the otherconcerns its external dynamics, the social and physical world (or virtual world)which it inhabits. There is an actor and a stage, a citizen and a city. We willdeal first with the internal dynamics of the agent. What is the recipe for"lifelikeness"? (If we get it right, we will also have something like a recipefor beauty as well.)Knowledge.--First, you need a massive database. In terms ofquantity of information, this requirement is not much of a problem forcontemporary computers, which can go out on the net and acquire as muchinformation as they can store. But knowledge is not the same thing asinformation. Knowledge is not a passive thing, random access memory stored in thesame form in which it was put in. What we call knowledge is actually two things:skills, or habits of action; and memory, that is, a capacity to recreate orregenerate an earlier experience, using an awareness of the generative principlesof what is remembered together with some significant fragment of the originalwhole that can serve as a seed and test of the result. We humans seem toreconstitute our memories by a method not unlike the way in which an iteratedcomputer program can generate a complex fractal shape out of a simple mathematicalseed or algorithm. But we also seem to need a background awareness of the wholeworld as the context and editor of the reconstructed memory; the rememberedexperience must fit into the right-shaped hole in everything else, and this fitacts as another check of its accuracy. The way a memory fits in is essentially aspart of a story, a program of contemplated or imagined action, which gives pointand application to the knowledge. Thus knowledge, either as a skill of action oras memory, is essentially active and creative.Thought.--The second ingredient,after this massive database, is a massively complex information processingcapacity, that is not clearly distinguished from the database itself: what we callthe power of thought. J. T. Fraser has calculated the number of possible brainstates in a human brain--its repertoire--to be of the order of ten raised to thepower of ten raised to the power of nine: that is, one followed by a billionzeroes. To write this number down you would need a hundred books. It is muchlarger than the number of particles in the universe. The processing method itselfis not of a single kind, but is a huge collection of different kinds oforganization--logical, probabilistic, holographic, symbolic, metaphorical,metonymic, and so on.Unified Self.--Third, this whole collection must be unifiedinto a single self, which sits at the top of a "chunked" hierarchy of labelledsubunits referencing, controlling, and sensitive to smaller and smaller moietiesof the whole. One of the most amazing characteristics of a human agent is itssimplicity and unity, achieved only if all its functions can be concentrated andsubsumed into a single focus of attention. This focus derives from the overallmotivation of the whole organism; here Brenda Laurel's excellent analysis ofdramatic character is key to the understanding of a lifelike agent. We, and anybelievable agent, must have goals, or objectives as they are called inStanislavsky's theory of dramatic acting. Objectives.--Objectives are the fourthingredient in our recipe for lifelike agency. Whence do objectives arise?Essentially, out of a comparison between the experienced reality and a library ofstored stories, one of which has already been selected because of its best fit tothe actual situation. We act according to a conscious or unconscious pattern ofaction, called a story; either by doing the next action the story prescribes, or,when reality does not turn out to fit the story, by changing reality to make itfit, switching stories, or seeking more information (including improved stories).Action--agency--comes out of the gap between what is and what ought to be; theagent acts until the two correspond, that is, what ought to be is what is. At
present any simple computer program, say a spellchecker, will continue to work ona list of tasks until the list is exhausted--which is what ought to be--and itwill then stop. What will make such a program into a true agent is a function ofthe richness and nonlinearity of the stories it seeks to fulfil. We must developcatalogs of stories for the various agents that we wish to bring to life: thesecretary, the docent, the database manager, the investment counsellor, the travelagent, the game-antagonist, the consumer adviser, the social secretary, themaintenance man, the attorney, the medical adviser, the marketing consultant, thesurveyor, the translator,the diplomat, the campaign manager, and so on. Each should struggle with his orher own special compromises and plot-obstacles, and the result of this strugglemay be truly insightful help.Internal Feedback.--Fifth, the internal process ofthe agent must be enormously flexible. Its input must be able to alter itsprogramming (learning); the program must be able to alter the hardware (habit);different objectives should be able to compete and reach compromises (innerconflict, as in the previous paragraph); the program and the hardware must be ableto be fed back into the system as input (introspection and psychological inquiry);and the higher-level functions must be subjected to periods of partial immersionin their own lower-level processing (dream).External Feedback.--Sixth, the wholesystem must be fully integrated into a world suited to its capacities, by means ofits distribution into a sensing, feeling, and active controllable body. A largepart of intelligence consists in the informative interplay between an informationprocessor and its world. That world must itself be highly complex, partlyintelligible, and composed of a mixture of predictable and unpredictable elements.Without such a world the intelligent system could not learn and would be paralysedwith boredom. Thus the architecture of the stage or city within which an agentoperates is crucial; it must be as rich and deep as the agent itself.EmergentProperties.--These ingredients must, lastly, be cooked together in such a way asto generate emergent properties of a reflexive and self-organizing kind. Theseinclude a circular feedback/feedforward loop (consciousness, self-awareness);self-inclusion paradoxes (mystical experience and the higher tenses of time);iterative chaotic non-linear relationships with the world (drama, personalhistory, humor). The result should be capable of originality: consciousness is areality generator. And originality constitutes freedom, because in changing theworld it changes the choices the world offers. Consciousness is unpredictable(though after the fact its decisions can make perfect sense), autonomous (self-ordering), and creative.3. How Can We Get a Machine to Do All This?How can webuild creative imagination, unpredictability, infinite expandability--in otherwords, freedom--into a machine? If the natural sciences stood now where they didup to a few decades ago, the project would be impossible by definition. Theuniverse was made up of deterministic processes interfering with each other inways which could be calculated and predicted. Perhaps there was an irreducibleelement of "noise"--of random vibration--in any system, but even this property wasat last reduced into the statistical descriptions of quantum theory. Chance andnecessity--that was all there was. Philosophers, artists, and believers in thehuman spirit were reduced to one of two desperate measures to assert the dignityand freedom of humanity. One was to posit a supernatural world in which freedomcould exist but which, unfortunately, required the abandonment of reason. Theother was to equate freedom with sheer chance, sheer randomness; and hence we gotthe existentialist's "acte gratuite," the gratuitous act of Camus' and Sartre'sheroes. Even now artists, in an attempt to escape what they imagine to be thedeterministic and mechanistic tyranny of reality, resort to aleatory or chance-based processes in their creations.Roger Penrose, in his book The Emperor's NewMind, offers an argument intended to negate the possiblity of cooking upartificial intelligence; his argument makes an excellent point, which we will findvery useful in cooking up believable agents. His argument runs as follows. Acomputer is a "Turing machine," that is, a device which carries out the commandsof a program or algorithm. Its workings are in principle predictable, linear, and

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