Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Robots and Avatars Round Table Debate with Noel Sharkey at NESTA

I took part in an interesting Lunchtime Debate yesterday at NESTA, organised by bodydataspace

"Robots and Avatars is an innovative project exploring how young people will work and play with new representational forms of themselves and others in virtual and physical life in the next 10-15 years."

There were fifteen of us from creative, academic and scientific backgrounds sitting around the table discussing our thoughts on the near future of Artificial Intelligence, robots and avatars. For me, I'm relatively new to all this in a practical sense, having created live interactive characters as part of Alternate Reality Games including the Star Trek movie ARG written characters/scripts for AI/chat bots for the Sherlock Holmes movie game (the BBC covered it)... and I've just finished a prototype empathetic robot who chats, Daemon (you can see all my blog posts on that).
In Science-Fiction terms I've been fascinated by our relationships with robots and AI since I was a kid. Now I'm talking with people who are trying to make it all a reality and I love it. My angle is as a storyteller... as narrative and character creator looking for a wider audience. I'm keen to take my ideas and experiments to the film, games and publishing industries to see if they'd like to run with them. My area in the past few years has been in making those story world elements become physically real in people's everyday lives. The great quote from the Star Trek ARG I worked on being "Oh my God Star Trek's real everyone!" from a fan who found our Romulan crash site in an Oxfordshire field.

Here's my rough write up of my notes from the session, which serve as a good brain dump for now:

Professor of Artificial Intelligence Prof. Kerstin Dautenhahn took part in the discussion, I was so impressed by her and I'm hoping to visit her at the University of Hertfordshire if she will be kind enough to spare me some time to pick her brains and get some inspiration from her.
Also attending was Paul Harter, programmer and digital artist, who struck a chord with me when he said that he's more interested in 'Artificial Humanity' than 'Artificial Intelligence' because he's interested in the imperfections of human personality rather than a logical, perfect model. This is very much my approach, as a writer I know that people prefer characters who are flawed and who behave illogically.
Professor Noel Sharkey who's somewhat of a celebrity in robot and AI circles and is also Professor of AI, Robotics and Public Engagement at Sheffield Uni., gave us a useful over view:
he talked about taking ideas to the film industry, which as I say I'm keen on. Other roles for robots, points out Sharkey, are service robots, robots for care, companions, education and therapy. He mentioned our tendency to 'anthropormorphic projection', where we just can't help letting our imaginations fill in the gaps where robots are concerned, giving them human like emotions and behaviour. An important point for me is that robots don't need to be 'humanoid' for us to do this: the very simplest movement from a very basic shape will lead us to see 'life' in an object, we can create 'artificial artefacts'. I'm very interested in exploiting this, what I think of as the 'theatre' of i, whereby people are playing along with AIs. This leads me to think again about my intention to write up a kind of 'rules of engagement' for role-playing for people who aren't professional actors. Online communities already have strict self moderating behaviour, which I'm sure is being well documented by academics... I'd like to see what people want to do and when, how to avoid feeling embarrassed or annoying other people etc. when playing and role playing face to face. I'll start doing this by analysing the success of the Natural Theatre Company performance approach, who I performed with for twelve years. I'll also be looking at film robot characters and how people relate to them and their part in the narrative.

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