2006-12-20

three laws of avatarics

Susan Wu, an associate at CRV, wrote an excellent critique recently in the article Second Life: Incredible innovator, but probably not sustainable:

Their high technical barriers to participation and the fact that SL is a closed standards system ultimately deters them from reaching mass market adoption.
She followed a few days later with an example from the other end of the spectrum:
APIs, like open source, facilitate economies of scale around the development process and create network effects for the core product.
I agree with both points, but I'd like to look in closer detail about why a virtual world suffers by being "closed", and what it means to be "open". First, a little background... It's important to state: we do not live in virtual worlds, rather we project aspects of our persona into these worlds. We engage in interaction with other projected or automated personae - but we do so solely as observers of those worlds. For instance, the avatar sitting next to you at a conference in Second Life is most likely some projected persona of another observer, and the NPC you confront inside World of Warcraft is an automated persona, functioning as a relatively limited observer.

One area of systems theory called autopoiesis seeks to apply rigorous definitions from biology to explore notions of "openness" and "closure" for systems. It also examines projected aspects of observers, sustainability and regulation, and some basis for defining "cognition" in terms of interaction. I'll dive into systems theory in gory detail later, but it seems apropos for a review of Susan Wu's perspective. For now let's make a point that a virtual world can be called a "domain of discourse", and that we as users and businesses involved in a world represent projections of that world's observers.

Let's also note a special term: "personification". I use it to describe how we project our persona, our identity, crossing Edward Castronova's membrane into the many different online worlds. In the sense that "Web 2.0" successes were built on a foundation of "personalization", the successful virtual worlds will likely be those which find effective ways to manage and leverage "personification".

Some interesting conclusions follow from systems theory - issues not usually associated with "virtual reality", "social networks", or media in general, such as implications for how complex behaviors in-world may become computable and perhaps predicted based on cellular automata. More to our point, these open/closed world issues speak to what is permitted as actions by automated systems and intelligent machines. In other words, the relative "openness" of a virtual world such as SL is, according to theory, strongly coupled with what we would permit or require of robots. Not surprisingly, given how recent furor over "CopyBot" has created some of the fiercest philosophical and commercial disputes in SL's history.
***
As the Technical Director of HeadCase Humanufacturing, Inc., a start-up focused on avatars and related technologies, I recently looked online for a term to describe the study of avatars. While there may be several cheesy sites advertising "avatars" as personal icons for chat boards, there seemed to be little in the sense of science or other phenomenology. The fact that so many of us visit virtual worlds such as SL may currently be hot news in the pages of Wall Street Journal or Financial Times; however, what we do with our personifications in those worlds does not yet seem to rate its own name as a branch of academia.

Thinking that "avatars" might be considered analogous to "robots", I tried searching for the term "avatarics". Only one search hit appeared in Google, located in a German entry of Wikipedia (see English translation by its author). That page describes the concept of intellectics as suggested by Wolfgang Bibel:

Intellectics explains human intelligence by designing systems that possess it.
Bibel includes avatarics as a sub-discipline of intellectics, roughly translated as: The science that seeks to design ... anthropomorphic intelligent autonomous agents that act in virtual environments.

Now that we have a name to use, let's return to our point about virtual worlds, openness, and robots. Parallels between avatarics and robotics which Bibel mentions are not new. Many researchers - and several disciplines other than systems theory - have analyzed the overlap of robotics into virtual worlds. As virtual worlds evolve, a large existing body of engineering, sociology, economics, etc., could potentially be carried over from robotics - and vice versa. However, "what we would permit or require of robots" seems particularly interesting.

That got me thinking about Isaac Asimov, who stated his famous Three Laws of Robotics in 1941:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
For what it's worth, Asimov "prefixed" another law the following year: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. The first three gained the most notoriety, and let's focus on those.

There have been several variations on Asimov's original theme, popping up throughout literature and science. For example, Mark Tilden took a pass at those Three Laws as:

  1. A robot must protect its existence at all costs. ("assert thyself")
  2. A robot must obtain and maintain access to its own power source. ("sustain thyself")
  3. A robot must continually search for better power sources. ("get thee thither in a whirlwind")
Tilden's view lent a more practical, "life coach" approach for earnest robots. (Elizabethan parentheticals added to track subtext).
***
I tend to agree with elements of both Bibel and Tilden. Though my university studies and 20 years since in the industry have generally focused on "AI", I rarely believe the claims attributed to Strong AI. Bibel's description of "designing systems that possess human intelligence" meshes well with my preferred approach: solutions based on autopoiesis as an area of systems that incorporates a rigorous view of cognition. In other words, I build systems as networks of human interaction, where both the humans and the computers participate together as observers.

As for Tilden's view... When we first began to write specs for HeadCase, we sought technical criteria for rating the effectiveness of the avatar API in a particular online game or virtual world. In our development work, we have found the following three criteria to be helpful in determining the "openness" of various virtual words, with respect to third-party vendors:

  1. The world must provide external API for controlling avatars.
  2. The world must allow third-party to include code plugin/module.
  3. The world must support use of external web services (HTTP, XMPP, etc.)
As a third-party vendor in virtual worlds, I enjoyed how our criteria followed Tilden's pattern of "assert", "sustain", and "thither". I offer these criteria as the Three Laws of Avatarics for evaluating the viability of a virtual world with respect to its broader, external context of social and economic systems. Consider these as preconditions for the network effects that Susan Wu mentioned.

It's clear that SL is lacking (read: broken) in terms of its avatar API and LSL scripting. Much of what could be useful has been disabled, often justified by needs for security. Competing virtual world platforms such as There.com don't even begin to meet the criteria listed above. While there is the excellent Lua scripting language and interesting API support in WoW, it appears that Blizzard has a relatively poor track record when it comes to enabling third-parties and external services (though I'd love to be proven wrong about that). Considering the wealth of "Web 2.0" resources online, both Linden and Blizzard appear to have sequestered themselves into cozy little hideaways. Is that wise?

Intuitively, the answer would seem to be a loud, resounding "No!" Much of what has succeeded on the Internet has worked because of its inherent openness and interoperability. In terms of virtual worlds, however, I wanted to find a more analytic answer.
* * *
Back to our discussion of systems theory, Maturana and Varela stated in their seminal 1980 text on cognition that, "Everything said is said by an observer." (See pp. 38-40, especially...) Considering their discourse, I have a hunch that M&V would have described a virtual world as a "domain of discourse", had such ideas been within their realm of experience; it'd be a fun question to ask Maturana personally.

Randall Whitaker has commented on their work extensively. He paraphrased about observers with:
A cognizing system engages the 'world' only in terms of the perturbations in its nervous system, which is 'operationally closed' (i.e., its transformations occur within its bounds). To the extent that the nervous system recursively interconnects its components (as in our brains), the organism is capable of generating, maintaining and re-engaging its own states as if they were literal re-presentations of external phenomena.

I wouldn't expect many SL or WoW users to endure the post-modern jargon beloved by us systems theory geeks, but the part about "generating", "maintaining", and "re-engaging" makes an interesting callback to our "assert", "sustain", and "thither" criteria for virtual worlds. Whitaker and others describe more detailed properties of complex, sustainable (read: living) systems, including "self-creation", "self-maintenance", "self-reproduction", etc. Fritjof Capra and a few other authors have even managed to craft explanations of complex systems into entertaining texts. While their descriptions may not be quite as tightly packed as the "Three Laws", it looks to me as if Tilden was headed in a good direction.

Whitaker's mention of operational closure deserves a much closer look. Consider that Maturana and Varela had been working in biology - and think about some of the properties of living cells. A cell wall prevents the all-important protoplasmic goo inside from spilling out into its environment. At the same time it allows food to be "captured" and wastes to be "expelled". The system has properties which are both "open" and "closed". In the dynamics of a living cell, this effect provides operational closure as means for using selection to determine what goes in or out... as M&V described, in a process of cognition.

Looking at computer systems, particularly looking at behaviors on large networks, we find a similar property of operational closure at the heart of enterprise network security - at least for any good security practice. This is where Linden and Blizzard miss their mark, in terms of sustainable business models. On one hand, Linden has clamped down on its API and third-party support, ostensibly for the sake of security, and yet they've left SL flying high, wide and handsome when it comes to security breaches - which have nearly become a weekly spectacle. Their operational closure has been "aimed" in the wrong directions. Blizzard, on the other hand, is simply closed - with not much hope for sustainable "protoplasmic goo" there.

In contrast, based on theory reported by Maturana, Varela, Winograd, Capra, Whitaker, et al., I have a hunch that we can determine reasonable estimators to indicate whether or not a virtual world could sustain itself in the long run. In particular, I'd point toward the (relatively obscure) works of former Stanford professor Niklaus Luhmann, who made controversial applications of M&V's autopoietic theory in sociology. Again, be forewarned about profuse jargon, dense texts, and systems theory geekness, but if you can endure it you might gain a sense for an interesting theoretical basis of where and how virtual worlds may evolve. Required reading in the study of avatarics.

***

In my survey of the emerging metaverse, I must give ample credit to Trevor Smith, who articulated a very good set of criteria for Ogoglio City - looking beyond SL toward a next-generation approach. I agree with Susan Wu that APIs, like open source, facilitate economies of scale, since the trajectory of "Web 1.0" and "Web 2.0" seem utterly contingent on that point. From that perspective I highly recommend taking a good look at Trevor's work, along with a few others who seem to get the point. Efforts which follow our criteria also include Croquet, Uni-verse, and the RESTful, Ajax-based Hive7. It looks as if Multiverse could also fit the previously mentioned criteria, though its "60% of revenue" requirement seems questionable as a sustainable practice, albeit in line with their support base in Redmond and Hollywood. It recalls the haphazard form of closure practiced by Linden and Blizzard.

Meanwhile, we're keeping a close watch on avatarics and operational closure as these virtual worlds evolve. We have good company too, considering that IBM appears to be watching for similar properties to emerge.

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