Tag Archives: artificial intelligence

From Mars to a Second Life Bot

image

Interesting to see that NASA is really getting with the program on the Phoenix Lander. First there was Twitter, where it would talk in the first person about what it was up to (and now answer questions directly), and now there’s an AI presence in Second Life, where it can talk intelligently to Second Lifers about what it’s doing.

The technology behind the bot comes from MyCyberTwin, which I profiled last year in the Journal. The chats aren’t perfect, but they’re more sophisticated than you might expect from a bot. Though the comments by founder Liesl Capper are somewhat revealing about what we may expect in the future:

“It’s like having a fully-staffed call centre online and available around the clock to take queries – but it’s all virtual. “People would rather talk to a well crafted AI than some distant person in a foreign call centre.”

I’m not 100% convinced about that, although yesterday, frustrated that a web hosting service required me to call them to confirm a transaction and yet had no one to take the call, I tried one of those online chat customer service things with a competitor. I was impressed that I got a response immediately, and while I wasn’t sure whether I was dealing with a bot or a real person, I didn’t care. The questions got answered, and I shifted hosting provider on the spot.

Voice Commands, Singapore Style

Here’s more on voice recognition replacing touch-tone menus. Is it a good thing?

ScanSoft have teamed up today with Unified Communications –  ’the leading provider of proprietary telecommunication solutions in Asia’ — to launch OneVoice, a ‘voice portal application’ for Singapore Telecommunications Limited (SingTel). OneVoice is a speech-activated service that uses ScanSoft’s SpeechWorks speech recognition and text-to-speech software to allow SingTel subscribers to ‘dial their personal contacts or public establishments, access useful information and carry out their personal information management’.

What does this mean exactly? By dialing *988 or *6988, SingTel customers can access stuff using simple speech commands. Speaking a name already stored in their personal address book would enable them to reach that person. They could also ‘request sports and lottery results, download ringtones, picture messages and logos, utilize location-based services to find the nearest amenities and recommended food outlets’.

The basic idea seems to be to replace navigating a touch-tone menu of options or scrolling through an address book on a cell phone. Not a bad idea, and you’re not replacing real people here but actually adding another layer of usability. (Of course Nokia and several other makes of handphone have the speech option already, where you just speak a name and the phone will dial, but that requires setting up, and I’ve seen more people get embarrassed when it dials by mistake than I have folk getting some serious use from it.)

The downsides I can think of are limited to the idea of storing all your data on a central server. But then again, the cellphone company is going to know all that stuff anyway, so who cares? The only other thing I can think of is the annoying problem of your voice not being recognised.

Which brings me to my only question, a cultural one: Is ScanSoft’s voice recognition software geared towards Singaporean-style English, or a more generic one? Or both? Watch this space.

Mail: Apple Chomps Spam

 This from reader Rulf Neigenfind about Windows, Macs and Spam: “You have certainly heard about the built-in mail client in Mac OS X that
comes with an AI equipped spam filter. This filter uses “adaptive latent semantic analysis” to identify junk mail and works amazingly well. Once more I can only state how lucky I am that I’m not forced to bear with Windows.”
 
Thanks Rulf. I’ve tried the filter and while it’s very good, I don’t see it as vastly better than the Bayesian Filters available for Windows-based email. What’s good, I guess, is that it comes preloaded, and it’s very easy to use.

News: Don’t Laugh, Your Email’s Coming

 
 Not sure whether to laugh or cry at this one. Or tiptoe quietly away. Researchers at Australia’s Monash University, the New Scientist reports, are working on software that would that automatically log you onto the nearest computer by listening out for your voice, or laugh, or footsteps. Microphones on each computer, Rachel Nowak writes, would pick up a person’s voice, or listen for familiar footsteps coming or going. The software would then recognise them and calculate where they are, using flocks of ‘intelligent agents’ – pieces of computer code that move from computer to computer. “The agents,” she writes, “close in on those computers where the person’s voice is loudest, until they pinpoint the nearest one.”
 
The agents — or sneaky little tattletales, depending on your point of view — would, upon realising that you were heading towards the Mars Bar dispenser, deliver your email to the nearest computer, or, upon hearing your rich baritone laugh by the water cooler, administer a pithy reprimand and remind you that your expenses are horribly overdue. I’m not sure I’m ready for this kind of life. We already have an accounts department.
 
 

Column: SimCity 4

Loose Wire — Calling All Control Freaks: Crave power? Get a taste of it in the newest version of PC game SimCity; In it, you build and govern your own city, then fill it with characters that you’ve created

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 20 March 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Eighteen years ago a guy called Will Wright was trying to peddle a computer game called SimCity to the big boys. Their response was, “Who wants to play a game where you just build a city, and then run it?” Now SimCity is into its fourth incarnation (SimCity 4, $50 from www.ea.com) and is pre-eminent among PC games. It turns out folk did like building stuff rather than blowing it up.

In some ways SimCity hasn’t changed that much in the intervening years. You’re still the mayor of a town that’s starting from scratch, you still zone land for residential, commercial and industrial use, and you still hope that enough citizens — Sims — move in to provide enough of a tax base to fund your grand urban-design fantasies. Under the hood, artificial intelligence is still computing all the factors of life to determine whether those Sims come, how they get to work and whether they are next going to clamour for a mall, a park or an airport. What’s changed is computing: Now computers are so powerful that the makers of SimCity can make the simulations — and the artificial intelligence — so detailed that you’re no longer seeing a few dots represent traffic, but real cars, with people inside them, all driving badly.

SimCity is something of a legend among gamers. At first it was hard to imagine it appealing to anyone other than town planners. Indeed, the early manuals came packed with academic treatises on the art of city building, not the sort of thing that your shoot-’em-up brigade was likely to digest prior to an evening’s PC mayhem. Against all odds, SimCity was a hit, and remained one, as the humble graphics — everything was viewed from above, in two-dimension — gave way to the isometric version used in most computer games nowadays. SimCity 4 has added God-like powers of forming terrain, from deep oceans to volcanoes, while also extending your powers to a region, whether it’s a patchwork of dormitory towns supporting a metropolis, or separate cities linked by rail, road and garbage-disposal deals. As mayor, it’s your job to figure all this out and make it work. SimCity doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you want to spend your free time doing, but trust me, it’s very addictive.

That’s not to say SimCity 4 is perfect. For one thing, it requires a well-powered PC to run — don’t even think of running it on anything less than a 1-gigahertz PC with plenty of memory. Maxis, the maker of SimCity, has been swallowed by the computer-games giant Electronic Arts (www.ea.com). My copy didn’t work until I downloaded an “update” from EA for minor fixes, such as ensuring freight trains drop their cargo at ports and fixing a bug where industrial zones would develop without any roads in and out. Even then my cities have been unstable, tending to crash if I put too many water pipes in. Were my cities not all such appalling examples of urban sprawl and unchecked pollution, I might have been more upset about having to keep starting over. Another grumble: Will Wright’s name is not on the credits, and I have a suspicion he’s transferred his affections to The Sims and The Sims Online games, which he also developed.

SimCity came first, but it made sense that folk who enjoy directing the lives of millions might also get a kick out of micromanaging the lives of one or two. That’s what The Sims was, while The Sims Online allowed you to take your creation onto the Internet and commune with other micromanagees. SimCity 4 has wedded part of this by allowing you to move Sims you created in either game into a building in the city you’ve created and govern: Watching your Sims driving their clapped-out Beetle to work along the streets you have laid, past a monument to yourself, to the smog-covered industrial heartland you zoned is an experience to warm any closet megalomaniac’s heart.

SimCity 4’s strength is its amazing attention to detail. Build a zoo and if you’re lucky you’ll see wild animals visiting their caged cousins after nightfall. Build an advanced research centre and you’re likely to see fireworks emanating from the building before crashing into nearby high-rises. Demolish a bridge and a blue bus will appear, suspended cartoon-style in mid-air before splashing into the river below; dynamite a church and its resident spirit will float heavenwards. Look out for the town drunk wandering by, or the mayor’s stretch limo, which glides down side streets at night: Either the mayor’s a kerb crawler or he takes his duties pretty seriously.

This is all great to watch, but SimCity 4 isn’t the quantum leap many enthusiasts hoped for. Just as with the first game, you’re best advised to ignore all your high-minded ideals about pollution and open spaces and get the place running with a combination of heavy industry and trailer parks. Don’t even think about educating your Sims, let alone giving them running water or a fire station, until you’ve got a population of 10,000 and a decent income. Of course, by then, you’ll have probably forgotten all your ideals and be demanding a limo, a mansion and the odd statue.

Among other gripes, I’d have liked more options for focused management where, as mayor, you could give your attention to traffic problems or waste management by delegating other tasks. As mayor in SimCity, it seems, you’re still putting out too many literal or figurative fires to stand back and be a visionary. A bit like being a real mayor, I guess. Right down to the stretch limo.