Miércoles 17 de Septiembre de 2008, Ip nº 247

Interview to Will Wright, the creator of Spore
Por Edit Staff

Will Wright's lifelong interest in astrobiology deepened during his numerous visits to the SETI Institute over the evolution of the computer game Spore, released September 7. There he became familiar with the work of Jill Tarter and her colleagues whose mission to explore the universe for signs of life inspired Wright's development of the game. Their recent conversation in Manhattan was characteristically ambitious, raising such questions as, can we model reality? How do we quantify scientific revolutions? And is the singularity inevitable?

JILL TARTER: I'm wondering if Spore is setting the stage for the next generation. Should we become more machinelike? Should we develop ways to think and evolve that biology didn't give us?

WILL WRIGHT: Well, I think, games and the technology they use are tools we can layer on top of what we've already got. The human imagination is this amazing thing. We're able to build models of the world around us, test out hypothetical scenarios and, in some sense, simulate the world. I think this ability is probably one of the most important characteristics of humanity.

JT: One of the things about games is that you get to build a model without any consequences or constraints. So Spore in one sense is a very good way of looking at evolution. But, if all things are possible with a certain number of DNA points, and you're not constrained by the physical world or what that world would actually provide you, then where do you learn about the consequences of evolution?

WW: Well, when kids — or adults — play a game there's a model in the computer that they're playing against. And when they play they're reverse-engineering that model. As they get better at the game, they get a more accurate representation of that computer model. And what I've seen in almost every game I've made is that when players get a close representation of the model they're playing against, they transcend it. They start arguing with the assumptions of that model, saying, "Hey, I don't think that's the way cities really work. I don't think mass transit's really that effective." And when they surpass the computer model, it feels to me like they're graduating the play experience — they realize this is a toy, not an accurate model of reality.

JT: Okay, so now they've got a better idea. How do they put it into effect, if it's not already built into the structure of the game?

WW: Well, at that point it becomes really interesting, because if a lot of people are playing the same simulator, they can now have an intelligent debate about how they think it differs from the way the world really works. I think, in some sense, being able to use this imaginary model as a shared landmark helps them actually increase the resolution of their model of the world around them. So building that model in the first place, I think, is a great path to put people on.

JT: I agree with you. But, again I'm eager to understand how learning to be good at a game makes you good at life, makes you good at changing the world, and gives you skills that are going to allow you to reinvent your environment. Because, in the game, you play against an environment that's been given to you.

WW: I don't think of games as something to replace traditional education. There's the saying that education is not the filling of a pail, but the sparking of a fire. If you can spark an interest in a kid, then you just have to get out of the way. Very frequently really cool science is hidden beneath layers of academic language and terminology. And I think things like games and entertainment in general show kids why these subjects are fascinating in a language that they can understand. So with Spore we took a lot of artistic license in doing that. For example when you get out to the space level, you have intelligent civilizations all around you.

JT: Right.

WW: Which, as I understand, we're not observing, though hopefully we will some day. But if I put you in an empty galaxy with nothing but microbes that would have been a far less engaging game. As it is now you have a starship, and usually within 20 or 30 stars distance out, you'll find some other species.

JT: That's a lot.

WW: Yeah, I thought you would agree that's an obvious exaggeration.

JT: Well, mainly because the 20 or 30 stars closest to us are M dwarfs and not likely to be good candidates for hosting. Also it doesn't show how empty space is, how far it is between things. Even with a lot of intelligent life, we could be functionally alone because there's no way for us to communicate over the time scales that we have available to us.

WW: Right. So, again, we're taking a huge amount of artistic license to keep the game engaging and interesting. But I think motivating people to understand, to come back and say, "Wait a second, that's not right" or "That's not reasonable given the evidence," is a good thing —when players realize their own model of reality is superior to this toy model that we've given them.

JT: I keep thinking about the generation that's getting exposed to all this wonderful, rich opportunity of game-playing as education, and that they expect to be able to manipulate the real world the way they do the game world. How do we bridge that? How do we turn them into socially functioning members of humanity on one planet?

WW: It's funny, because I think they are able, more and more, to manipulate the real world like the game world. If you look at the tools that they have available on their cell phones, Google Maps, and such, the amount of formalized information that we can extract from the world around us is skyrocketing. And it's very much based upon things like game interfaces.

JT: But the fact that they can use that interface and pull up this information hasn't changed one iota of the information content. They're just accessing it.

WW: Oh, they're consumers of it, correct. Although more and more, they do have the ability to produce it, to broadcast a video on YouTube or their web pages, etc.

JT: Right. But this takes me back to what we're doing as we use games to study evolution. I mean, are you, Will, the great Pied Piper who is leading our kids into a future where they will accept enhanced attributes in, or on, their own bodies and give up some of the biological aspects of humans as we know them now? Are you leading the way to the singularity?

WW: Ooh, that's quite an accusation!

JT: I'm asking a question. I'm not even saying it's a good thing or a bad thing.

WW: Transhumanism, you mean?

JT: Yeah. Are these kids being primed to accept that? To want that? To try and make it happen?

WW: Well, as I said, if there's one aspect of humanity that I want to augment, it's the imagination, which is probably our most powerful cognitive tool. I think of games as being an amplifier for the imagination of the players, in the same way that a car amplifies our legs or a house amplifies our skin. Not only are we able to build much more elaborate models on a computer, which can keep track of all the numbers and the repercussions, but we're also able to share and communicate those models to others. It becomes a tool of self expression.

JT: Right.

WW: On a somewhat deeper level, is the idea of proving to people that they can be creative. Because when you're in this world, seeing all these incredible movies and books and whatever thrown at you, the idea that you as an individual can be creative is almost educated out of you.

JT: Yeah, you don't have to teach a three-year-old to be creative, they're as creative as hell.

WW: What I want to do is take the natural motivation people have to play games and put it toward some amount of reality. Even if it's a toy reality at least they can see, "Oh, this is about evolution and astronomy, it's about culture." So that at least at a symbolic, simple, toy-like level, we're representing the world around them, as opposed to an obvious fantasy world of Orcs, and— 

JT:  — magic wands.

WW: Right. Basically replace the magic with science, because I think science is every bit as magic as any magic. I never really like fantasy books for that reason. I was never a big Tolkien fan. I always felt that magic kind of removed the drama from a story because magic could do anything; there were no limitations. It's like what you were saying earlier, about fundamental limitations that bring you back to reality, that ground you.



WW: Do you think people as we recognize them will exist in 10,000 years?

JT: Yeah, I think they will be recognizable. I don't think they're going to be like us.

WW: You mean you would actually recognize them as our descendents?

JT: In the sense that we've had a lot of opportunity, through science fiction, to think into the future, and to think about alternate evolution, alternate possibilities. And I think we haven't written anything that we can't imagine, so if we participate, what will happen is probably imaginable.

WW: Because one of the things that has always captured my imagination, especially recently, is intelligent machines and what they're going to mean to humanity. Whether we end up absorbing them within ourselves, whether they become an external species, if you will, going off on their own trajectory. Or whether we both end up diversifying to where, there's every combination imaginable — pure mechanicals, pure biologicals, and everything in between.

JT: Why would you keep the pure biologicals around? They think really slowly.

WW: Humans do a lot of strange things. I can imagine a strain of humanity deciding to remain pure, whatever that means, and resisting all subsumption of mechanical augmentation. And maybe they even become Amish or something, living on little reservations.

JT: But they only live for a little while, relative to all these other things they're going to create.

WW: I understand, I'm just saying that human culture is amazingly diverse. And if you look at people's beliefs and span the gamut of possibilities, I would imagine that's one scenario that is probably going to exist in some form. Life in general tends to diversify, given every opportunity. And if we achieve, say, mechanical AI, I see no reason why it would be a homogenous, borg-like intelligence. Why wouldn't it diversify every bit as much? Or more so, because we'll have opportunities to create diversity. So we'll have radically different mechanical intelligences with radically different motivations behind them. But at the same time, we'll probably have almost every imaginable combination of humans and mechanicals as well.

JT: It's the slow-thinking speed of the humans relative to the mechanicals that makes me wonder whether in fact they might be so reduced in number that a small glitch, a fluctuation, can mean the end of them. Or whether they won't be purposely eliminated, or choose to eliminate themselves.

WW: It's an interesting point, because if you basically take the brain out, what other part of human biology would you want to keep?

JT: Right.

WW: In which case, is that to say that we're likely to transition into purely designed creature or entities?

JT: That's what the singularity is all about — having the first opportunity ever to do that. Who will take it is the question.

WW: If that occurs — and it seems likely — then it's certainly going to occur within 10,000 years. Probably within 1,000. Maybe even within 200.

JT: And that exponential is just amazingly robust. But I think we would still recognize them. I think we would still see them as having lots of attributes of life

WW: But I could easily imagine these things being strange in form — an intelligent puddle that thinks in an entirely alien way. And I might just as well think it's an intelligent alien as a descendent of humanity.

JT: Oh, I see what you're trying to get at. Would we claim it as our descendent? I don't know. Do we recognize ourselves as a descendent of some of the really, really weird early species?

WW: No.

JT: We are.

WW: If you look at a genetic basis, yeah. We share so much with a fruit fly it's ridiculous.

JT: But that's the biological that's going to go a way potentially.

WW: Right.

JT: So would we recognize it?

WW: I would contend that we are probably more similar to a fruit fly than these descendents will be to us.

JT: And a fruit fly doesn't recognize us, but we do recognize a fruit fly. And we can appreciate the inheritance.

WW: That's interesting. So they'll recognize us as their progenitors, but we won't recognize them as our descendents.

JT: It could be a possibility.


WW: I think you're dealing with two very fundamental questions in your work. Number one, what is the definition of life? And number two, what is the definition of intelligence?

JT: Actually, I don't deal with either. Life, I assume, is a precursor to some technology. And the technology or the intelligence is something that modifies its environment in ways that we can sense, with our emergent technology, over interstellar distances. I really don't care for any more profound definition than that. I'm just very pragmatic.

WW: So when you're looking at signals, you're basically sorting what would be considered an intelligent signal from a natural signal.

JT: Right, an engineered signal from a natural signal. If we're successful we detect technology, from which we infer a technologist, who may or may not still be around.

WW: Couldn't you have a natural technology sending an intelligent signal, like an engineered pulsar or something?

JT: I would think that someone created the technology to engineer the pulsar. There's this great pulse that was just detected, published in the fall of '07. A single pulse that lasted less than five milliseconds, and which was extraordinarily dispersed in frequency. And if you take that dispersion to be due to scattering of electrons in the intervening medium, then you say, "Oh, that dispersion measure is so huge, that signal is coming from outside the galaxy." And then you say, "Well, if it's coming from outside the galaxy, it's unbelievably strong." It's got to be two black holes colliding or something, to produce that much energy. And that's probably what it's going to turn out to be.

WW: How long was the pulse?

JT: Less than five milliseconds. And there are no other pulses within the record of time the data were taken. We've now tried to look for more, because if you find one in 96 hours of data, there should be a lot more where you found them.

WW: Was it the galactic plane?

JT: No, it was actually in the direction of the Magellanic Clouds.

WW: On the other side of our galaxy?

JT: In that direction. The inference that it's outside of our galaxy comes from saying that dispersion is due to interstellar scattering. But it could be an engineered signal. And if it is the technology that made it is probably not nature. My bet would be that it was a technologist somewhere.

WW: Just sending out one little blast.

JT: For whatever reason.

WW: Is that because the physical explanations are problematic?

JT: No. Because it's in the realm of possibility. And like Jocelyn Bell with the pulsars, when we come up with anomalies, we ought not to totally ignore them. If you can't say that it's black holes colliding or some other phenomenon, then let's go back to thinking about some technologist somewhere who figured out how to do this.

WW: So you must have a catalogue of these signals that could potentially be engineered.

JT: Yes, there are a few of them. This one is the most spectacular.

To read the complete article click here.

Continue reading about the game Spore, check the article "The creation simulation" here.

  02/09/2008. Seed Magazine.


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