The digital world of Second Life is among one of the most popular internet destinations. People from around the world can construct an avatar of whatever person they want, be they male, female or otherwise, and then roam the landscape and interact with other explorers. Tens of thousands of Second Life players are always on at any given time, but now there is a unique citizen among the game’s population. His name is Edd Hifeng and the way he looks in Second Life, as a gray robot, isn’t too far off from what kind of intellect is behind the character. It turns out that the decisions and speech delivered by Edd is the product of an artificial intelligence program designed by researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
Edd is placed by his creators at different spots inside Second Life and the results of his interactions with other avatars controlled by real people are watched. While the programming that went into Edd’s thought processes is complex, he is able to function and respond to his environment at about the level of a four-year-old child. The students and teachers at Rensselaer are trying to push the envelope about what the limits are for designing a “smart” piece of software. While there is still a lot of work left to go to get to the point when a synthetic mind can be created that’s smart enough to interact with real humans on a variety of subjects, the Rensselaer team is hoping that their work on pushing Edd’s abilities even further and giving him emotions like courage or guile.
On their part the owners of Second Life don’t see any problem with Edd being one of their citizens and foresee the day when there are others like Edd living in cyberspace. “I think the real future for this is when people take these AI-controlled avatars and let them free in ‘Second Life,'” commented John Lester, an operations manager for the company that owns Second Life. “Let them randomly walk the grid.”