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|Life in Digital Space
Bots, Biota and Virtual Pets
Something powerful is getting set to emerge in Cyberspace.. life! How could this happen? Well, consider the Internet itself. Since its birth, the Internet has been a lot like a great mass of tubing. You often see terms like pipe and socket and port describing the plumbing which carries data streams through the net. All those streams are pooling into a common digital ocean. That ocean contains a wonderful variety of objects, some of which can recombine and replicate to make new objects. And there you have it, the old primordial soup recipe for life! One of the richest soups will be avatar virtual worlds, full of structures, behaviors, and above all, people. People will be a tremendous catalyst in the mix, building and tearing down structures, creating software robots, playing games, and tweaking the genetic codes of artificial life forms growing inside virtual worlds. We have already seen the explosion which can occur in Cyberspace with the growth of the World Wide Web. Well, just wait and see what will happen inside virtual worlds!
Your Guide to Bots, Biota and Virtual Pets
- Agents, Daemons, Bots, Biots, Biota, where did this all come from?
- Avatars in Prague: a Personal Story
- A Parade of Bots
- Virtual Pets
- We Are Not Alone: Artificial Life Growing on the Internet
- The Synthetic Ecosystems of Biota.org
- The Organic Artists
- Extreme Cyber Edge
- Digi's Diary: Let Life Out (Or In)!
Agents, Daemons, Bots, Biots, Biota, where did this all come from?
"People are moving out of the way; something big and inexorable is plunging through the crowd, shoving avatars this way and that. Only one thing has the ability to shove people around like that inside The Black Sun, and that's a bouncer daemon."
-Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, page 76.
What are avatars really and where did all this come from? Stories were told around campfires thousands of years ago, just as they are today. Only back then, that was the only form of evening entertainment and they really knew how to tell a story. Complete with dancing, drumming, masks and costumes, members of those old communities donned other personae and acted out fables from the overworld, the afterworld and other features of the local mythology. Cave paintings also showed fanciful representations of the community and its world. Stories told in front of these vivid action filled paintings must have had the power to totally immerse listeners. So how are avatars and virtual worlds connected with all this? You could look at it as a neo-digital cave culture. Just picture millions of us sitting in front of our glowing screens (largely at nighttime) all reaching out and to paint on our shared digital walls.
Daemons in the Night
In all of those ancient campfire stories the most terrifying and intriguing character of all was the disembodied spirit. As the tellers described it, these spirits could inhabit any person or object, giving voices to stones and causing trees to walk. The ogre, the monster, the demon all sprung from fearsome living creatures that threatened human lives. The difference was that these creatures were creations of the human imagination and all embodied human attributes: a human body, a crafty mind, the voice of a man or woman. These creatures were all morphs of people.
When people started to build machines that had some attributes of living things such as mechanical power or logical processes all of their beliefs in spirits and monsters began to transfer to these machines. Our fascination with Frankenstein and his progeny continues today and underlies the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence and artificial life. The unique environment of virtual worlds will allow us to visually embody little experimental Frankensteins in the form of software agents, robots, daemons, biots and biota.
Avatars in Prague: a Personal Story
From 1990 to 1994 I had the great fortune to frequently visit and then to live in Prague, a beautiful city in the then newly 'liberated' central Europe. Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia (which later became the Czech Republic), had ended up on the Soviet side of the so-called 'iron curtain' after the end of World War II. For forty years, Prague had existed in a time warp under an intensely autocratic communist dictatorship (with the exception of the famous Prague Spring which lead to an invasion in 1968). I went there to help set up a software laboratory for my company and ended up joining the community. I became part of the faculty of Charles University, learned to speak some Czech, helped create a salon for artists and musicians and generally had a great time.
Prague and Prague Castle a spiritual home of automata and birthplace of the Robot
As I studied the history and culture of the region of Bohemia and Moravia, which make up most of the Czech Republic, I got a glimpse into some of the origins of the concept of avatars. I was surprised to learn that the term robot was coined by a Czech playwright, Karel Capek, earlier in this century. Playwright Capek's 1923 work was called "R.U.R., Rossum's Universal Robots.". Robot derived from rabotai, the Czech word for work.
The Golden Lane, home of alchemists in Prague Castle
The Czechs, Sudeten Germans and Jews had built a rich culture and a prosperous industrial society in Bohemia-Moravia that gave us articulated body armor, elaborate locks, and guns, including the pistol (which is another Czech word). Prague is a city of spires and clocks, including an elaborate astronomical clock with figures that march out of trap doors on the hour. About 500 years ago, king Rudolph II decided to fund a group of alchemists and even built a street full of tiny houses for them inside the walls of Prague Castle (see preceding figure). Under the protection and funding of the king, these secretive alchemists were charged with a mystical mission: to animate matter, to give life to dead material and take a step toward creating homunculi or artificial men.
The Old Jewish cemetery in Prague, mythical birthplace of the Golem man/robot
Elsewhere in the culture and myths of Bohemia lie legends that speak of a great fascination with the automaton, or artificial being. One of the most well known is that of the Golem, a giant clay creature called forth by Rabbi Loew of Prague to protect the Jewish community from the consequences of an accusation of a blood libel. He arose out of the 900 year old Jewish cemetery (shown here). Hebrew instructions inscribed on his body One version of the story of the Golem, as told in the on-line interview pieces Adam, Golem, Robot - A Dialogue between Ken Goldberg and Ovid Jacob found at: http://www.cyborganic.com/People/ovid/agr.html goes as follows:
Rabbi Loew asks the creature to fetch water from the well. The Rabbi goes upstairs to sleep and awakens to discover that the entire house is filled with water! The Golem continues dutifully fetch water until the Rabbi tricks it into leaning close enough that the Rabbi can erase the first letter inscribed on its forehead, thus changing Emet (Truth, or Life) to Met (Death), whereupon the Golem turns into a lifeless mass of clay which crushes the Rabbi to death. Again, harsh consequences for the creator. As a Computer Scientist I note that the rabbi's fatal error was to forget to specify what we call a "termination condition". The Golem went into an infinite loop due to a programming error!
Ken Goldberg goes on to conclude:
Prometheus, Icarus, Faust, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Frankenstein, the Hasidic tale of the Golem. The archetype generally describes a human who creates a creature that comes to life. Initially the creator takes great pride and delight in the creature, until at some point the creature takes a life of its own and runs amok, and in the end the creator pays the consequences for this act of hubris. The event wherein the creator loses control of the creature is a necessary step toward the development of the creature.
Figure 13.1.4: pragb1.jpg
Modern day puppeteers on the Charles Bridge in Prague
Prague is a beautiful city, full of castles and ancient bridges, spires and labyrinthine streets, catacomb-like pubs and pristine gothic and baroque squares and avenues. Prague seems like a virtual world itself. When I lived there, I heard older Sudeten Germans describing it as a true Wunderland. From the Golem to the agents and informants of past puppet regimes to the Byzantine mask that Czechs wear to hide and preserve an inner life, in Prague avatars walk the streets.
And what of the modern viewpoint of our newly created robots and robot selves? Kafka, another former Prague resident, often portrayed people in his writings as being mere mechanisms in a larger and sinister organizational machine. In the 1980s, Donna Haraway wrote A Manifesto for Cyborgs (see the reference in the Bibliography) which explains why we are all quietly becoming cyborgs as our machine meld with our minds and bodies.
So perhaps avatars, agents, bots and biota are just the latest digital alchemists' work in the long quest to create the homunculi. Originally the term avatar came from Hindu mythology and is the name for the temporary body a god inhabits while visiting Earth. We may not be able to imbue gods in our avatars but it will be interesting to see how much of ourselves we can slip into their virtual sleeves.
Are we all puppets in some way? Are we all not avatars?