Tag Archives: weavrs

Machines That Tell Stories: SXSW 2015


March 18, 2015 at 2:51 pm (One Comment)

Last Saturday at SXSW Interactive Jon Lebkowsky and I curated a Core Conversation titled Machines That Tell Stories. I proposed the topic as a book project to Jon last year, and we put together this discussion as a stepping stone. Software storytellers are in the air. There were over a dozen sessions at SXSW this year on storytelling systems, and that kind of consensus usually heralds a new wave about to break. We’ve setup a twitter and tumblr for this project, if you want to follow along.

Machines That Tell Stories PlacardsOur argument: Software is moving beyond raw data and into narrative.  First it will help you weave the tales you want to spin, but soon it may be telling stories better than all but the best human storytellers.

The conversation was all over the place, and I don’t think anyone recorded it, but here are some notes and references that could be helpful…

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  • Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story: “A story is how what happens affects someone who’s trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how she changes as a result.”
  • Wired For Story Takeaway: Story is about mechanics, the trappings that you think of as important aren’t as critical as hitting the right beats that resonate with the human brain.
  • The Future of Storytelling Conference – Great speaker videos
  • Dwarf Fortress’s Legends mode, Procedural Poetry Analysis (Leave the creative imagination up to the user. Provide concrete, easy to procedurally generate elements, and let the brain fill in the rest.)
  • Weavrs as storytellers
  • The Nest Home Report monthly email as a machine-generated story
  • Collaborative human/machine storytelling at DARPA
  • Machine data into text reporting at Automated Insights (1 billion articles for 1 person each, instead of 1 article for 1 billion readers) More at CNN
  • Games by Angelina – Procedurally generated videogames, played through brute-force to see if they’re solvable. Potentially compare play throughs to known-pleasing physical interactions (progressively more complex button presses and movements)
  • Mechanical Turk as a part of a story machine, using human filtering to produce more compelling procedural content
  • Turing in The Imitation Game: The question isn’t whether machines will think like humans, it’s whether machines will think like machines.
  • tmbotg – Random TMBG tweeting bot, sometimes interacted with by humans due to serendipity
  • Talk PhotoWhy limit to text? Is software that generates a song based on your day’s quantified self data creating a story?
  • Shadows of Mordor’s Nemesis System as a storytelling engine – characters continue to exist when you aren’t looking, maintain the thread without you
  • Games as half-way points: PROCJAM’s The Inquisitor as procedural murder mystery
  • NaNoGenMo – Software generated novels
  • Eugene Goostman – Chatbot & Winner of the Loebner Prize.  13 year old Ukrainian boy personification: more constraints (space on twitter, language barrier with Eugene) result in increased credibility
  • Deus Ex Machina interactive theater project in Austin, sms polling to a web UI to allow for story decisions
  • Communal entertainment as a cultural touchstone: In a world where everyone gets personalized entertainment, does it become harder to relate to other people?  (No more watercooler conversations?)
  • Storium as a story generation human/software collaboration system

We had a great crowd for the conversation, and even managed to be “Hot” in the schedule.  Thanks to everyone who was able to make it!

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Games That Play Themselves


February 19, 2015 at 12:36 pm (One Comment)

A few days ago a new iOS app called Dreeps landed in my news feed, heralded with headlines like Maybe The Laziest RPG You Could Ever Play and A Video Game That Plays Itself. Dreeps is an app where a little robot boy goes on an adventure, Japanese RPG style.  You set an alarm to tell him to rest, and that’s it.  When the alarm goes off, he gets up and gets on with his adventure, fighting monsters and meeting NPCs.  There’s pixel art and chiptune audio.  Dialog is word balloons with squiggly lines for text.  It’s all very atmospheric.  You just don’t do anything, really, but watch when you want and suggest he get up when he’s resting after a fight.

Dreeps is a lot like Godville, a game I talked about in a post about Pocket Worlds back in 2012.  They’re games that (appear, depending on the implementation) to be running and progressing even when you’re not around.  While Godville does its magic with text, Dreeps has neat graphics and sound.  They’re essentially the same game, though.  A singular hero you have slight control over goes on a quest.  In Godville it’s for your glory (since you’re their god), in Dreeps it’s to destroy evil (I think).

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Both Dreeps and Godville are passive entertainment experiences, they’re worlds that are all about you, but not really games you play.  They’re games you experience, or perhaps we need a new word for this kind of thing.  While books and TV shows and music (although not playlists, as we’ve seen with Pandora) are hard to create for just one person’s unique enjoyment, games are great at that.  They can take feedback and craft an experience just for you, and as we built more complex technology and can access more external datasets, they can get even more unique.

Imagine a game like Dreeps where the other characters (or maybe even the enemies) are modeled algorithmically after your Facebook friends (or LinkedIn contacts).  Take their names, mash them through a fantasy-name-izer, do face detection and hue detection to pick hair color and eye color, maybe figure out where they’re from (geolocated photos, profile hometowns or checkins) for region-appropriate clothing.  Weather from where they are, or where your friends live, maybe playing on an appropriate map.  You could even use street view and fancy algorithms to identify key regional architectural elements and generate game levels that ‘feel’ like the places they live.  That starts to get pretty interestingly personalized, though much less predictable.

261308-animal_crossing_screenMike Diver over at Vice posted an article about Dreeps titled I Am Quite OK With Video Games That Play Themselves, where his main point was that he’s figured out that he’s actually bad at games, and it’s nice to have something where you can enjoy the progression without working about your joystick skills.  Maybe Mike should spent more time with Animal Crossing, a game series I think Dreeps shares a lot of DNA with.  In Animal Crossing your character inhabits a town that progresses in real-time.  You can go fishing and dig up treasure and pick fruit and talk to the other inhabitants in your little village, but the world keeps going when you’re not playing, so if you leave it alone for a long time, you come back to a game that’s progressed without you (with the game characters wondering where you’ve been).  Dreeps is like that, but without the active user participation.  It’s like a zen Farmville.  Take out the gamification, add in some serenity.

It feels like Dreeps could be a really fantastic lock-screen-game, if that’s a thing.  You nudge your phone awake, and see your guy trudging along.  He’s always there, in a comforting, reassuring, living way.  Maybe Samsung or someone with some great cross-vertical reach could implement lock-screen or sleep-screen as a platform across TVs, phones, tablets, fridges, etc.  That’d be something.

ant-farmI was talking to a friend of mine about these kind of games yesterday, pondering where this is headed, and I mentioned that the experience almost feels like an Ecosphere.  Ecospheres are those totally enclosed ecosystems, where aside from providing a reasonable temperature and sunlight, you’re a completely passive observer. There’s something nice about walking by and peeking in on it every once in a while.  Something comforting about knowing that even when you’re not watching it’s going on about its fantastically complex business without you.  But there’s also a spiritual weight to it, because it’s a thing that could cease to exist.  I could cover the Ecosphere with a sheet or leave it out in the cold, I could delete Godville or Dreeps from my phone, or have my phone stolen, unable to retrieve my little robotic adventurer.

It isn’t a huge weight now that we carry with these sorts of things.  In fact, I stopped checking in on my Godville character a few months ago, after over a year of nearly daily care.  Sometimes you just lose the thread.  But these systems are going to become more complex, more compelling.  They’re going to have more pieces of ourselves in them.  How would I feel if a friend of mine was a major character in Dreeps, always showing up to help me out, and then he died in real life?  What if Dreeps decides to shutter their app, or not release an upgrade for the new phone I get after that?  Would I leave my device plugged in, forever stuck at iOS whatever, just so the experiences could keep going?  The Weavrs I created for myself back in 2012 are gone, victims to this onward march of technology and unportability of complex cloud-based systems.  I’m fortunate that I never got too attached.  Droops is an app, but there’s still a lot there outside of my control.

GodBenderI’m particularly interested in where this stuff intersects with physical objects.  Tamagotchis are still out there, and we’re building hardware with enough smarts to be able to create interesting installations.  There’s an Austin Interactive Installation meetup I keep meaning to go to that’s probably full of folks who would have great ideas about this.  Imagine a pico-projector or LCD screen and a RaspberryPi running a game like Dreeps, but with the deep complexity and procedural generation systems of Dwarf Fortress.  Maybe a god game like Populous, with limited interaction.  You’d be like Bender in Godfellas, watching a civilization grow.  Could that sit in your home, on your desk or by the bookshelf, running a little world with little adventurers for years and years?  Text notifications on your phone when interesting things happened.  A weekly email of news from their perspective?  As it sat on your desk for longer, would it be harder and harder to let go of?  When your kids grew up, would they want to fork a copy and take it with them?

4 years ago there were no low-power GPU sporting Raspberry Pis or globally interconnected Nest thermostats or dirt-cheap tablet-sized LCD screens or PROCJAM.  Minecraft was still in alpha, the indie game scene hadn’t exploded, the App Store was still young, procedural content generation was a niche thing.  Now all those pieces are there, just waiting to be plugged together.  So who’s going to be the first one to do it?

Building a Personal Cloud Computer


September 13, 2013 at 12:21 pm (2 Comments)

Wednesday I presented a talk at the Austin Personal Cloud meetup about Building a Personal Cloud computer.  Murphy was in full effect, so both of the cameras we had to record the session died, and I forgot to start my audio recorder.  I’ve decided to write out the notes that I should have had, so here’s the presentation if it had been read.

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In this presentation we’re talking about building a personal cloud computer.  This is one approach to the personal cloud, there are certainly others, but this is the one that has been ringing true to me lately.

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A lot of what people have been talking about when they speak about the personal cloud is really personal pervasive storage.  These are things like Dropbox or Evernote.  It’s the concept of having your files everywhere, and being able to give permission to things that want to access them.  Think Google Drive, as well.

These concepts are certainly valid, but I’m more interested in software, and I think computing really comes down to running programs.  For me, the personal cloud has storage, but it’s power is in the fact that it executes programs for me, just like my personal computer at home.

That computer in the slide is a Commodore +4, the first computer I ever laid fingers on.

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Back then, idea of running programs for yourself still appealed to the dreamers.  They made movies like TRON, and we anthropomorphized the software we were writing.  These were our programs doing work for us, and if we were just smart enough and spent enough time at it, we could change our lives and change the world.

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This idea isn’t new, in fact AI pioneers were talking about it back in the 50s.  John McCarthy was thinking about it back then, as Alan Kay relates when he talks about his 3rd age of computing:

They had in view a system that, when given a goal, could carry out the details of the appropriate computer operations and could ask for and receive advice, offered in human terms, when it was stuck. An agent would be a ‘soft robot’ living and doing its business within the computer world.

That’s been the dream for a long time…

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But that never really happened.  The personal computer revolution revolutionized business, and it changed how we communicated with each other, but before the Internet things didn’t interconnect to the point where software could be a useful helper, and then we all went crazy making money with .com 1.0 and Web 2.0, and it was all about being easy and carving out a market niche.  Then something else hit…

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Mobile exploded.  If you’ll notice, mobile applications never really had an early adopter phase.  There was no early computing era for mobile.  You could say that PDAs were it, but without connectivity that isn’t the same as the world we have now.  Most developers couldn’t get their app onto a mobile device until the iOS app store hit, but that platform was already locked down.  There was no experimentation phase with no boundaries.  We still haven’t had the ability to have an always-connected device in our pocket that can run whatever we want.  The Ubuntu phones may be that, but we’re 6 iterations into the post-iPhone era.

Personal Cloud Meetup Talk.007And who doesn’t love mobile?  Who doesn’t love their phone?  They’re great, they’re easy to use, they solve our problems.  What’s wrong with them?  Why do we need something else?  Well, let’s compare them to what we’ve got…

Personal Cloud Meetup Talk.008With the PC we had a unique device in so far as we owned the hardware, we owned our data, and EULA issues aside, we owned the software.  You could pack up your PC, take it with you to the top of a mountain in Nepal, and write your great novel or game or program, with no worries about someone deactivating it or the machine being EOLed.  Unfortunately the PC is stuck at your house, unscalable, badly networked, loaded with an OS that was designed for compatibility with programs written 25 years ago.  It isn’t an Internet era machine.

With the web we got Software as a Service (SaaS), and with this I’m thinking about the Picasa’s and Flickr’s and Bloggers of the world.  No software to maintain, no hardware to maintain, access to some of your data (but not all of it, such as not having access to traffic metrics with Flickr unless you paid, and only export rights if you were paid up).  But in this new world you can’t guarantee your continuity of experience.  Flickr releases a redesign and the experience you’ve depended on goes away.  The way you’ve organized and curated your content no longer makes sense.  Or maybe as in the case of sites like Gowalla, the whole thing just disappears one day.

Mobile has it’s own issues.  You often don’t own the hardware, you’re leasing it or it’s locked up and difficult to control.  You can’t take your phone to another provider, you can’t install whatever software you want on it.  Sometimes it’s difficult to get data out.  How do you store the savegame files from your favorite iPhone game without a whole-device snapshot?  How do you get files out of a note taking app if it doesn’t have Dropbox integration?  In the end, you don’t even really own a lot of that software.  Many apps only work with specific back-end services, and once your phone gets older, support starts to disappear.  Upgrade or throw it in the junk pile.

Cloud offers us new options.  We don’t have to own the hardware, we can just access it through standards compliant means.  That’s what OpenStack is all about.  OpenStack’s a platform, but OpenStack is also an API promise.  If you can do it with X provider, you can also do it with Y provider.  No vendor lock-in is even one of the bullet points on our homepage at HP Cloud.

Implicit in cloud is that you own your own data.  You may pay to have it mutated, but you own the input and the output.  A lot of the software we use in cloud systems is either free, or stuff that you own (usually by building it or tweaking it yourself).  It’s a lot more like the old PC model than Mobile or SaaS.

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All of these systems solve specific types of problems, and for the Personal Cloud to really take off, I think it needs to solve a problem better than the alternatives.  It has to be the logical choice for some problem set.  (At the meetup we spent a lot of time discussing exactly what that problem could be, and if the millennials would even have the same problems those of us over 30 do.  I’m not sure anyone has a definitive answer for that yet.)

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This is what I think the Personal Cloud is waiting for.  This explosion of data from all our connected devices, from the metrics of everything we do, read, and say, and what everyone around us says and does.  I think the Personal Cloud has a unique place, being Internet-native, as the ideal place to solve those problems.  We’re generating more data from our activities than ever before, and the new wave of Quantified Self and Internet of Things devices is just going to amplify that.  How many data points a day does my FitBit generate?  Stephen Wolfram’s been collecting personal analytics for decades, but how many of us have the skill to create our own suite of tools to analyze it, like he does?

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The other play the Personal Cloud can make is as a defense against the productization of you.  Bruce Sterling was talking about The Stacks years ago, but maybe there’s an actual defensive strategy against just being a metric in some billion dollar corporations database.  I worked on retail systems for a while, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if based on the order of items scanned out of your cart at Target (plus some anonymized data mining from store cameras) they could re-construct your likely path through the store.  Track you over time based on your hashed credit card information, and they know a whole lot about you.  You don’t know a whole lot about them, though.  Maybe the Personal Cloud’s place is to alert you to when you’re being played.

Personal Cloud Meetup Talk.013In the end I think the Personal Cloud is about you.  It’s about privacy, it’s about personal empowerment.  It’s uniquely just about you and your needs, just like the Personal Computer was personal, but can’t keep up, so the Personal Cloud Computer will take that mantel.

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The new dream, I think, is that the Personal Cloud Computer runs those programs for you, and acts like your own TRON.  It’s your guardian, your watchdog, your companion in a world gone data mad.  Just like airbags in your car protect you against the volume of other automobiles and your own lack of perfect focus, so your Personal Cloud protects you against malicious or inconsiderate manipulation and your own data privacy unawareness.

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To do this I think the Personal Cloud Computer has to live a central role in your digital life.  I think it needs to be a place that other things connect to, a central switching station for everything else.

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And I think this is the promise it can fulfill.  The PC was a computer that was personal.  We could write diary entries, work on our novel for years, collect our photos.  In the early days of the Internet, we could even be anonymous.  We could play and pretend, we could take on different personas and try them out, like the freedom you have when you move to a new place or a new school or job.  We had the freedom to disappear, to be forgotten.  This is a freedom that kids today may not have.  Everything can connect for these kids (note the links to my LinkedIn profile, Flickr Photos, Twitter account, etc in the sidebar), though they don’t.  They seem to be working around this, routing around the failure, but Google and others are working against that.  Facebook buys Instagram because that’s where the kids are.  Eventually everything connects and is discoverable, though it may be years after the fact.

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So how do I think this looks, when the code hits the circuits?  I think the Personal Cloud Computer (or ‘a’ personal cloud computer) will look like this:

  • A Migratory – Think OpenStack APIs, and an orchestration tool optimized for provider price/security/privacy/whuffie.
  • Standards Compliant – Your PCC can talk to mine, and Facebook knows how to talk to both.
  • Remotely Accessible – Responsive HTML5 on your Phone, Tablet and Desktop. Voice and Cards for Glass.
  • API Nexus – Everything connects through it, so it can track what’s going on.
  • with Authentication – You authenticate with it, Twitter authenticates with it, you don’t have a password at Twitter.
  • Application Hosting – It all comes down to running Apps, just like the PC.  No provider can build everything, apps have to be easy to port and easy to build.
  • Permission Delegation – These two apps want to talk to each other, so let them.  They want to share files, so expose a cloud storage container/bucket for them to use.
  • Managed Updates – It has to be up to date all the time, look to Mobile for this.
  • Notifications – It has to be able to get ahold of you, since things are happening all the time online.
  • and Dynamic Scaling Capabilities – Think spinning up a hadoop cluster to process your lifelog camera data for face and word detection every night, then spinning it down when it’s done.

Personal Cloud Meetup Talk.022So how do we actually make this happen?  What bits and bobs already exist that look like they’d be good foundational pieces, or good applications to sit on top?

Personal Cloud Meetup Talk.023No presentation these days would be complete without a mention of docker, and this one is no different.  If you haven’t heard of docker, it’s the hot new orchestration platform that makes bundling up apps and deploying lightweight linux container images super-easy.  It’s almost a PaaS in a box, and has blown up like few projects before it in the last 6 months.  Docker lets you bundle up an application and run it on a laptop, a home server, in a cloud, or on a managed Platform as a Service.  One image, multiple environments, multiple capacities.  Looking at that Ubuntu Edge, that looks like a perfect way to sandbox applications iOS style, but still give them what they need to be functional.

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Hubot is a chat bot, a descendant of the IRC bots that flourished in the 90’s.  Hubot was built by Github, and was originally designed to make orchestration and system management easier.  Since they connect and collaborate in text based chat rooms, Hubot sits in their waiting for someone to give it a command.  Once it hears a command, it goes off and does it, whether it be to restart a server, post an image or say a joke.  You can imagine that you could have a Personal Cloud Computer bot that you’d say ‘I’m on my way home, and it’s pot roast night’ to, and it would switch on the Air Conditioner, turn on the TV and queue up your favorite show, and fire up the crock pot.

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The great thing about Hubot, and the thing about these Personal Cloud Bots, is that like WordPress Plugins, they’re developed largely by the community.  Github being who they are, Hubot embraces the open development model, and users have developed hundreds of scripts that add functionality to Hubot.  I expect we’ll see the same thing with the Personal Cloud Computer.

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I’ve talked about Weavrs pretty extensively here on the blog before, so I won’t go into serious depth, but I think that the Personal Cloud Computer is the perfect place for something like Weavrs to live.  Weavrs are social bots that have big-data derived personalities, you can create as many of them as you like, and watch them do their thing.  That’s a nice playground to play with personalities, to experiment and see what bubbles to the top from the chaos of the internet.

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If you listen to game developers talk, you’ll start to hear about that initial dream that got them into game development, the dream of a system that tells stories, or tells stories collaboratively with you.  The Kickstarted game Sir, You Are Being Hunted has been playing with this, specifically with their procedurally generated British Countryside Generator.  I think there’s a lot of room for that closely personal kind of entertainment experience, and the Personal Cloud Computer could be a great place to do it.

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Aaron Cope is someone you should be following if you aren’t.  He used to be at Flickr, and is now at the Cooper-Hewett Design Museum in New York.  His Time Pixels talk is fantastic.  Two of the things that Aaron has worked on of interest are Parallel Flickr, (a networkable backup engine for Flickr, that lets you backup your photos and your contacts photos, but is API compatible with Flickr) and privatesquare (a foursquare checkin proxy that lets you keep your checkins private if you want, or make them public).  That feels like a really great Personal Cloud app to me, because it plays to that API Nexus feature.

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The Numenta guys are doing some really interesting stuff, and have open sourced their brain simulation system that does pattern learning and prediction.  They want people to use it and build apps on top of it, and we’re a long way away from real use, but that could lead to some cool personal data insights that you run yourself.  HP spent a bunch of money on Autonomy because extracting insights from the stream of data has a lot of value.  Numenta could be a similar piece for the Personal Cloud.

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That’s the Adafruit Pi Printer, Berg has their Little Printer, and they’re building a cloud platform for these kind of things.  These devices bring the internet to the real world in interesting ways, and there’s a lot of room for personal innovation.  People want massively personalized products, and the Personal Cloud Computer can be a good data conduit for that.

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Beyond printers, we have internet connected thermostats, doorknobs, and some of those service companies will inevitably go away before people stop using their products.  What happens to your wifi thermostat or wifi lightbulbs when the company behind it goes way?  Personal Cloud lets you support that going forward, it lets you maintain your own service continuity.

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Having an always-on personal app platform lets us utilize interesting APIs provided by other companies to process our data in ways we can’t with open source or our own apps.  Mashape has a marketplace that lets you pick and switch between api providers, and lets you extend your Personal Cloud in interesting ways, like getting a sentiment analysis for your Twitter followers.

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In addition to stuff we can touch over the network, there’s a growing market of providers that let you trigger meatspace actions through an API.  Taskrabbit has an API, oDesk does, Shapeways does, and we haven’t even begun to scratch the possibilities that opens up.

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One thing to watch is how the Enterprise market is adapting to utility computing and the cloud.  The problems they have (marketplaces, managed permissions, security for apps that run premises, big data) are problems that all of us will have in a few years.  We can make the technology work with enterprise and startups, but for end users, we have to make it simple.  We have to iPhone it.

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So where do we start?  I think we have to start with a just good enough, minimum viable product that solves a real problem people have.  Early adopters adopt a technology that empowers them or excites them in some way, and whatever Personal Cloud platforms appear, they have to scratch an itch.  This is super-critical.  I think the VRM stuff from Doc Searls is really interesting, but it doesn’t scratch an itch that I have today in a way I can comprehend.  If you’ve been talking about something for years, what will likely happen is not that it’ll eventually grow up, it’s that something radical will come out of left field that uses some of those ideas, but doesn’t honor all of them.  That’s my opinion, at least.  I think the Personal Cloud community that’s been going for years with the Internet Identity Workshop probably won’t be where the big new thing comes from, but a lot of their ideas will be in it.  That’s just my gut feeling.

Personal Cloud Meetup Talk.046The last caveat is that Apple and Microsoft and Google are perfectly positioned to make this happen with vendor lockin easily.  They all already do cloud.  They all have app stores.  They have accounts for you, and they want to keep you in their system.  Imagine an Apple App Store that goes beyond your iPhone, iPad and even Apple TV, but lets you run apps in iCloud?  That’s an easy jump for them, and a huge upending of the Personal Cloud world.  Google can do the exact same thing, and they’re even more likely to.

Personal Cloud Meetup Talk.047 So thanks for your time, and for listening (reading).  If you have comments, please share them.  It’s an exciting time.

Dwarf Fortress, Facebook, Big Data and the Search for Story


June 14, 2013 at 11:00 am (5 Comments)

Last night after driving home from the Austin PyLadies meetup, my wife sat in our driveway for 20 minutes listening to the end of an episode of WNYC’s Radiolab.  Later, after we’d headed to bed, she spent another 20 minutes retelling the story to me, minus Radiolab’s flourish and production.  The story was still interesting second hand, and comes down to this (I’ll wait if you’d like to go listen to the episode of Radiolab, I’m sure it’s excellent):

Two people discover hundreds of letters from WWII on the side of Route 101.  They’re from soldiers replying to a woman on the homefront.  The soldiers call her mom, but she isn’t their mother.  The two ask around, no one knows anything about them.  One of them, a creative writing professor, ends up using the letters as projects for his students.  He gives them a letter, and their task is to create a story around it.  A soldier, a woman stateside, an unlikely connection.  The other discoverer wants to track down relatives, she wants to uncover the truth.  She ends up discovering it, but he’d rather not know.  He wants the possibilities.

Even told second hand, the story stuck with me on a meta-level.  There aren’t a lot of things that would make my wife sit in the car in the driveway for 20 minutes listening to the radio, but a good story is one.  We love stories, we love it when they’re well crafted and well told.  But we also love the possibilities of them.  Sometimes we don’t want the truth, we want magic, we want to dream the dream of what could be.  Sometimes the truth can’t exist, and the closest we can get is a dim outline of it.  Sometimes the dream is better.

The Promise: Stories that Tell Themselves

A few days ago I ran across a blog post by Tynan Sylvester, a designer on the game Bioshock Infinite.  It’s all about the dream of simulations for game designers, how we think that by creating more and more complex systems, we might eventually build a system that is complex enough to manifest stories.  Austin Grossman’s latest novel, YOU, is about that, in a way.  The protagonist is a game designer and the antagonist is just a manifestation of some long-running game rules.  As game designers, we want to design games that surprise us.  That’s the ultimate payoff, to build a game that entertains you, and not just a twitch game that is enjoyable for its mechanics, but a game with stories compelling enough to sit in the car in the driveway for 20 minutes at 9 o’clock at night.

Lots of game designers have tried to do this. Tynan talks specifically about systems in early versions of Bioshock where the player would have to play autonomous bots (splicers, gatherers and protectors) off each other to progress.  They hoped that amazing, emergent gameplay would be the result.  In the end it didn’t work, and the game moments that they’d hoped would happen spontaneously ended up being heavily scripted.  Players crave story, but that story can’t be left up to their persistence and chance, especially when creating a commercial title.  In that environment, a great story has to be guaranteed.

Dwarf Fortress: Madness in Text Mode

There are a few notable exceptions to this principle, and they’re mainly smaller games driven by singular minded creators.  The best example of this is Dwarf Fortress, a massive and inscrutable simulation game where the the player takes on the role of an overseer, and the titular dwarves are simulated autonomous entities inhabiting the world.  Dwarves have names and hair colors, what Tynan calls Hair Complexity, things that add perceived simulation depth without effecting anything else.  (When was the last time you played an RPG where a plot point hinged on your hair style?)  They also have more integrated systems like hunger and social needs.  They have personalities, they get sad, and sometimes they go crazy.  The dwarves live in a randomly generated world, so your game isn’t like my game, and even my second game won’t be like my first.

Dwarf FortressDwarf Fortress has a very dedicated core following, and one of the reasons is that it really lives at the edge of apophneia, the experience of seeing meaningful patterns emerge from random data.  At the core of Dwarf Fortress is a collection of rules governing behavior.  A dwarf without food will eventually starve.  A dwarf without personal interaction may eventually go crazy.  Dwarves are scared of wolves.  Dwarves exist in a world generated fractally, a world that feels real because it mirrors patterns in nature.  Therefor, as more and more rules get layered on, and more and more people play more and more games and get better and better at creating experimental mazes for these digital rats to play in, stories begin to appear, or so we perceive.

Two of the most famous stories to come out of Dwarf Fortress games are Boatmurdered, the tale of an epic game played out by members of the Something Awful forums in 2007, and Bronzemurder, a beautiful infographic-style tale of a dwarf fortress and a terrible monster.  Go read it, it’s great.

Dwarf Fortress didn’t generate these stories, though.  People played the game, sometimes hundreds or thousands of times, and while gazing into the mandala of the game, they nudged and pulled the threads of the world and created stories based on the events that occurred there.  Dwarf Fortress isn’t a windup toy, it’s a god-game, and the players impact on the game world is more than negligible.  The stories generated there are as much created by the players as by the game.

I Fight For the Users

While my wife was out at PyLadies last night, I coincidentally watched TRON: Legacy.  It occurred to me as I was thinking about writing this post, that it’s a movie about this possibility: The dream of a world inside a computer, a world created by a brilliant programmer, a world that once set in motion can create stories, unexpected events and enthralling narrative.  The creator steps aside, and no longer controls the game from the top-down.  The creator becomes a god among men, watching things unfold from their level.

Tron: Legacy - Quorra

In TRON: Legacy, the magic of digital life comes in the form of Quorra, the last of the ISOs, Isometric entities that appear spontaneously from the wasteland of the computer.  Digital DNA, digital life.  Enough rules, enough circuitry, enough care and magic happens.  That premise is exciting, and to programmers it’s intoxicating.  For those of us in the digital generation, that’s the dream we live with.  That’s what we keep trying to make happen wherever we go and whatever project we work on, be it big data or software bots.

But the lone programmer, no matter how brilliant, and working for no matter how long, can only produce so much code.  Stories from one person only grow so far, only change so much, and rarely surprise and enthrall.  Dwarf Fortress as a dwarf isn’t a game most people would play.  It’s hard to see the overall story, and the game isn’t good at presenting it.  But if there were more players…

EVE Online: More Interesting to Read About Than to Play

If it’s possible (albeit insanely difficult) to have stories appear in a single player game, it must be easier for stories to manifest in a multi-player game, right?  Games like World of Warcraft have largely fixed, planned out stories.  It comes back to the challenge that Bioshock had, complex systems are exciting to designers, but players want immediate story gratification.  Complex systems take dedication to understand, dedication most players don’t have.  When new multiplayer games are announced they sometimes hint at players making a real impact on the world, but those systems usually fail to live up to the hype.  The latest game to promise this is The Elder Scrolls Online.  We’ll see if they can do it.

One game that does this and thrives is EVE Online.  EVE is a massively multiplayer online space combat simulation, one that spans an entire universe.  It’s possible to play EVE as a loner, but it’s also possible to align yourself with a faction, and have your small efforts merge with hundreds or even thousands of others to build armadas and giant dreadnaught ships, to control entire solar systems and even galaxies.  The designers and administrators of EVE take a largely hands-off approach.  They don’t want to kill the golden goose, so they design the game for balanced conflict, and let the players sort it out.

EVE-Online-Battle-of-Asakai-3Every once in a while something epic happens in EVE, either a massive fraud, an invasion a faction planned for months, or a random accident that led to a game-rebalancing war.  There are battlefield reports, and once the space dust settles, people start to put together a history, and an accessible storyline appears.  Here are a few great EVE stories.  More people probably enjoy the reports of epic battles in EVE through these stories than actually play the game.  To quote a MetaFilter comment thread: “This game sounds stressing as hell if you really play it and not just dither around. Fascinating to read about, however, almost like news from a parallel universe.

You could say that EVE is a computer program for generating stories, and in fact the’ve even made a deal to do a TV show based on player stories from the EVE universe.  Except again we find that that EVE isn’t the thing generating the stories, EVE is just a place where the stories happen.  To a player only experiencing the events inside the game it may seem mysterious and amazing, and it certainly is to those of us who read about the events afterwards, but it’s really just a sandbox.  People play pretend with enforceable rules, but you can’t separate a story that happens inside of EVE with the real life stories that happen outside of it: The scheming that happens on IRC or in forums, the personal vendettas, the flexible allegiances  and the real-world money that flows through the system.  There’s no way to watch something occur inside of EVE, and even if you had perfect clarity on everything that happened inside, have any way of knowing for sure what really caused it.  If you take away the players, the legions of dedicated fans scheming and plotting, you just have an empty universe.

Facebook and the Timeline of Truth

I think a lot of web developers secretly wanted to be game designers.  Becoming a game designer is difficult, there aren’t as many jobs and the hours are terrible.  Instead we build web sites, but we’re building systems too, and we want to tell stories.

I joined Facebook back in April of 2006.  I had a @swt.edu address from Southwest Texas State (now Texas State University) from an extremely brief stint (sub 1 day) as an IT staff-member, so I got in a few months before they opened it for everyone.  Getting into a new, exclusive social network is a bit like finding a new simulation.  We hope the software can tell us new stories, that it can make some sense of the data it has.  With Facebook the promise was that if it collected enough information about us, it could tell us that magical story.  That’s what Timeline was supposed to do.  Give Facebook enough photos, enough checkins, enough friend connections, enough tagged posts and it would be able to tell the story of our lives.

Facebook Timeline

In the end, though, Timeline doesn’t tell you a real story.  It reminds you of stories you’ve heard and experienced, but Facebook is only a dumb algorithm working with imperfect data.  It’s smart enough to target ads, but it can’t understand the meaning, and it can’t remix the data in really compelling ways.  It can’t be Radiolab.  Most of the time the prioritization it comes up with I just want to turn off.  Its attempts at story are so bad I’d rather use my own organic cognitive story filters.

With every new Facebook feature announcement, with Google+ or the next thing that processes all your activity, the promise is that the system can get better at telling those stories.  We want to believe it will happen.  We want to believe that a couple thousand web developers and a couple billion dollars could create a story machine, but I’m not sure it can.  I was reading an article about HP’s R&D budget the other day that said Facebook invests 27.5% of revenue in R&D, a larger percentage than any other company they tracked.  You can bet a good chunk of that is going towards the search for story, in some form or another.

Weaving a Web

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Weavrs at this point, since they are essentially digital actors that derive stories from the mess of social media.  Weavrs are designed specifically for apophneia, they produce content one step up from random, and rely on our desire for patterns to throw away the things that don’t fit.  We project stories on to them, and for a project with the limited resources that it had, it’s exceedingly good at it.

My weavr twin is posting about HP Moonshot servers.  That’s almost eerie, but it’s also posting about hockey tickets.  The story makes sense if I’m picky about the things I include, but it isn’t an internally consistent narrative.  The narrative is impressed on it by the people who see it, like reading digital tea leaves.  Your story of my weavr is different than mine.

With enough resources and time, weavrs might become a real story machine.  That’s a moonshot program, though, and I don’t know who’s going to step forward and make that happen.  Investment follows money, and right now the money is racing towards big data.

Autonomy: Billions and Billions

The lure of story, the promise of meaning from the chaos of data isn’t limited to games or the social web.  It’s the romantic beating heart of big data.  It’s the stories about Target knowing you’re pregnant before you do.  It’s what lured HP to spend $8.8 billion dollars more than it was worth to acquire Autonomy.

Autonomy’s main product is called the Intelligent Data Operating Layer, or IDOL (symbology, ahoy!).  They call the processing of information with it Meaning-Based Computing.  From what I’ve heard it’s certainly good at what it does, but while it promises Meaning from Data, and that promise separated HP from 9 Instagrams or 2,500 Flickrs, there has to be some apophenia at work here.  Just like watching solar system battles inside of EVE gives you a piece of the story and playing hundreds of games of Dwarf Fortress will result in games worth telling stories about, the system data is never the entire picture.

Screenshot_6_13_13_11_52_PMI really like Stephen Wolfram.  Stephen believes in the fundamental computability of everything.  While I love reading his blog posts, and I am interested in and admire his idea, I have to wonder how far the hyperbole is from actual execution.  Given enough computable facts and enough understanding about the structure of narrative, a perfect Wolfram|Alpha should be able to tell me stories about the real world.  But it can’t.  They aren’t even trying to approach that.  Wolfram|Alpha isn’t creating Radiolab.  They want answers, not stories.  You know what tells stories? Dirty, messy, all-too-human Wikipedia.

A Different Kind of Magic

My friend Matt Sanders works for a bay area company called Librato.  Librato is a big data startup, having pivoted from some other work to running a service that collects vast amounts of metrics and provides dashboards on top of it.  With Librato Metrics you can feed data points, set alert triggers, create graphs, and watch activity.  It’s big data without the prediction.  It promises no magic, but relies on our own.  It optimizes data for processing by human eyeballs.

The 3 pounds of grey matter between your ears is still the best computer we have, running the best software for deriving stories and making sense of data.  Librato works because it doesn’t try to be what it can’t.  Google Analytics tries to offer Intelligence Events, but more often than not, it can’t offer anything more helpful than that visits are up from Germany 34%.  You would think that by combining traffic source analysis with content changes and deep data understanding Google would be able to tell you why visits are up from Germany, but most of the time that basic percentage is the best it can offer.  It still takes that 3 pounds of meat to pull together the data and interpret it into a story.  While computers may be generating articles on company reports or sports games, they’re not creating Radiolab.

Wrapping Up

I think there’s still a lot of room for innovation here.  The Archive Project I dreamed of long ago is essentially a system for telling stories and discovering meta-stories.  Maybe someone will finally build it.  Maybe the next Dwarf Fortress will be a world that runs persistently in the cloud, a world where our games interact with other people’s games, where crowdsourced Hair Complexity snowballs until you can get lost in the story if you want to. A game where if you want to turn off a random path and follow it down to the river you’ll find a fisherman who will tell you a tale interesting enough to make you sit in your car for 20 minutes, enthralled by a narrative.

Maybe the framing of a story is what big data needs to become personally relevant.  Maybe that’s its magic trick.  Maybe narrative is the next great big data frontier.

Future Past

iPad

I sometimes wonder about the generation of kids growing up today, in this big data, analytic-driven, always-on world.  I wonder how they will embrace it, like we embraced computers and connectivity.  I wonder if they’ll have the ability to hear the prognostications of the computer, to listen to the story from the machine, and consider it a kind of truth.  To internalize it, but also keep it separate.  To know the machine knows a truth, but not necessarily the absolute truth.  Maybe that will be their power, the thing they can do that those of us from the generation before can’t. Maybe that is where the dream finally comes true.

Life in the Weavrs Web


April 30, 2012 at 9:06 pm (4 Comments)

Jeff Sym lives in South Austin and likes Indian TV dramas, dubstep inspired remixes and the Austin Children’s Museum. Keiko Kyoda lives in Japan, likes to read old travel books and wants Condensed Milk for dinner. They tweet. Sometimes they even post things they shouldn’t.

Jeff and Keiko didn’t exist yesterday.

The first time I failed the Turing test was 1993. I’d dialed up to a BBS in Austin, a one-line operation probably running out of some guys bedroom. There was an option in one of the menus to chat with the sysop. It was an ELIZA style bot. It took at least a screen full of text and growing irritation for me to realize I was talking to a machine. I don’t remember a lot from 1993, but I remember sitting there in front of my 14″ glowing CRT, feeling incredibly dumb.  (A few years later I upgraded to this NeXT Cube.)

Artificial intelligence is only as convincing as the data behind it. Back in that relative stone age the system could only echo back at me what I’d written or ask open ended questions. “How does that make you feel?” Watson read all of Wikipedia before it (he?) went on Jeopardy. If you started talking to Watson about cars, I bet it/he could respond with some really interesting trivia, and you could chat with it/him for a while before you realized you weren’t talking to a person.

The most visible ‘ask me a question and I’ll give you an answer’ system is Apple’s Siri. Siri can tell you what the weather’s like outside, and she’ll soon be able to tell you what year and model of car you just snapped a picture of. Siri could listen to you and tell if you’re angry, or if you had a really great day yesterday, based on your tweets and Facebook posts. Siri could team up with Mint to watch your bank account balance, and suggest that hey, you aren’t investing enough for retirement, maybe you don’t need that thing you just price compared on your phone. Maybe you should put that money into your Roth IRA instead. This is all possible because these systems have access to fantastically more data than they used to.

Jeff and Keiko are Weavrs. You create weavr bots by selecting a gender (or object), a name, and a collection of interest keywords. Then you define some emotions. _____ makes me _____ when I’m at _____. You can tell weavrs where they live, and they’ll wander around their neighborhood. They utilize public social APIs (flickr, last.fm, twitter, google local), driven by some black box keyword magic, to find and post things they like. You can add pluggable modules to weavr’s to say, post their dreams. Over time they can develop new emotions about different things. There’s even a system for programming a Monomyth into their lives.

Weavrs exist on their own. You can ask them questions, but you can’t tell them ‘I like this, post more like this.’ The developers of the Weavr platform consider this to be important. Weavrs evolve and grow without your direct hand guiding them. I can understand why they didn’t want to allow ‘more like this’ feedback. It makes the entire system more complex, but it’s obvious that having more full featured persona creation/control options is going to be a big part of the future of social bots.

Weavrs most public impact so far (at least as far as I can tell) reveals a bit about how people will likely react to this sort of thing. Author of Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test, Gonzo Journalist Jon Ronson (@jonronson) did a bit on his video show about twitter bots. The Weavr folks found out and using the contents of his Wikipedia page, created a @jon_ronson Weavr. The result was somewhat predictable: much gnashing of teeth.  There’s an excellent article about this, and Weavrs in general, on Wired UK.

This is Bat^H^H^HBot CountryTwitter has over 140 million active users. A large number of these are spam bots, designed to convert ego (retweets and replies) into $ (clickthroughs). What we don’t really know, and what may in fact be unknowable soon, is how many of these are bots of a different kind. How many of them exist just to exist. To learn, grow, develop. We heard a lot about companies creating armies of real-looking twitter accounts for nefarious purposes during the Arab Spring.  It doesn’t take a lot of work, once you have a valid social model that can be fed keywords, to create a twitter bot the simulates the interest of every ‘person’ that Wikipedia has an entry for.

What we don’t hear about, and I don’t think is discussed enough, is the non-nefarious potential for these independent personas. Imagine a platform somewhat beyond Weavr. Weavr 2.0, maybe. It ties into more social platforms. It has artistic taste (or not). Maybe it takes walks through its neighborhood, and snaps out ‘photos’ from segments of google street view images.  (Jeff Sym liked this picture today, while he was wandering around downtown Austin.) Maybe it goes on trips, setting arbitrary routes through hot points. Maybe my (should I even call it ‘my’ anymore, except that in some way perhaps I’m responsible for it, like a child?) Weavr that’s really into Information Security decides to take a road trip to DEF CON. Maybe because he’s also a bit of a conspiracy theorist, he decides to drop by Roswell on his way, maybe he looks around in Google Street View and takes a picture. Maybe because I’ve stirred the 3d Visu-chromasome pot, he has an appearance (and taste in clothes), so maybe he puts himself into the picture (apologies to Charles Stross).

Wolfram Alpha (that powers the ‘question/answer’ part of Siri with a >90% relevancy rate) is 20 million lines of Mathematica code. You’d need a lot less than that to do what I just outlined. You need an event parser. Easy, the events are already online. You need a map, and the ability to search for hotspots of keywords along the route or near an area. If I did a keyword search for ‘conspiracy’ between Austin and Las Vegas, don’t you think Roswell would pop up? If I did a search for clusters of photos taken in Roswell on Flickr or some other social photo site, I’m sure I’d find the geo location and general object background of something interesting. Analyze light and time of day, pose and place model, render and voila. Picture postcard. Get it printed and mailed from New Mexico with a pay-as-you-go errand service. Boom, your virtual persona just became real.

These personas would be great for directed research: I need a ‘me’ who lives in Amsterdam and loves to take pictures and eat cheese, since I’m going there in 6 months and I want to get a feel for the place. What if you created a relationship engine. X is my Y, I’m in love with Z. You could have your own little soap opera that evolves online every day. It ties itself into current events. It evolves in ways you can’t predict, because it feeds off the now.

I’m going to ignore the whole ‘but if you don’t know they’re fake’ problem for now. On one hand, that’s kind of the point. On the other, it sucks to be duped. In the future (and present) you can’t trust anything you see. It’s probably time to get over any assumption of authenticity.

One thing that’s nagging at me, though, is death. A lot of us know people on twitter or Facebook who’ve died. In the coming years a lot more of us will. We’ll be reminded of birthdays, of past events, things will pop up in our timeline because someone commented a few years later. Their memory continues to exist, but in a concentrated form. Unless their profile’s deleted completely, they continue to exist. If there was a collection of directed, trained bots behind the scenes, they might even continue to post. They might be posting things relevant to their interests 10 or even 20 years later, if the systems keep running that long. As it is, Jeff and Keiko will only ‘die’ if Weavr shuts down. If they had control of their own codebases and knew how to set themselves up as a lightweight every-2-hour process on a system somewhere, maybe they could pay for their own existence through clickthroughs and blog ads… indefinitely.

Weavrs want to continue to exist, as well.  Right now you can clone them, in the future they may, after some length of existence, spawn some kids with variations on their ‘genetic makeup’.  Some kids will be interesting, attract attention and flourish, some will be too boring or too weird and disappear.  The parent weavr continues to exist through it’s children.

There’s the school of thought that all people have several people inside of them. You have a ‘masculine’ take-charge person, maybe a ‘feminine’ artistic, caring person, maybe a young zany person and an older, wiser person. They all make up you, but maybe with these technologies one day soon you’ll be able to manifest them more concretely. You could have an inner circle of very directed Weavrs. Maybe to maximize their inventiveness you’ll make deals with them.  More freedom for them, wider results sets for you.  The deal with your wise, older persona, in exchange for the investment tips and long-range perspective, is that it gets to virtually go down to Florida every winter. Maybe your virtual young, wild persona, in exchange for keeping you up to date on the latest fashion trends and music recommendations, gets to stay out late and virtually attend hot underground shows.  They’re not just agents, they’re symbiotes.

These autonomous net entities, these ghosts in the social web or e-horcruxes, whatever you’d like to call them, aren’t going back in the box.  We have to learn to deal with them, and due to social connectedness and meaning being a currency in our society, whoever figures out how to utilize them best is going to have an advantage. Businesses and marketeers will take advantage after the artists finish tinkering.  Someone’s already using Weavrs to create market segment identities (PDF) for the cities in China with more than a million people (there are 150 such cities, too many to look at individually).

We’re all familiar with code that runs ‘for us’.  Flickr, McAfee, these services run with our content or on our computers, but they don’t really run for just us, and they don’t exist independently… yet.  One groundbreaking thing that Weavr is moving towards is removing the AI logic from the content (Weavrs pull from the web and post back to it, but they don’t exist in a walled garden like Flickr, they exist outside of it and talk to it via APIs).  Eventually I think we’ll see some open source or self-runnable version of this, an agent that lives wherever you want.  Once my dependency on an outside software provider for the black box is gone, I’m free to integrate whatever bits I like (fork that thing on GitHub!), and work towards a social agent that can exist for as long as someone keeps the lights on.

Postscript 1:

I just had a weird thought.  Irma and I have noticed that our Weavrs post a lot of things we’re interested in (or find cool/neat).  Since we created them, they feel like an extension of ourselves, so there’s a personal ownership angle to the things they post.  “Oh,” I say, “this bot is like me.”  I don’t say that when my friends post things, though.  I don’t say, “Wow, this social appendage of me is like me.”  I suppose someone really ego centric would say that, but we consider our friends to be independent entities.  We know we don’t control them, and unless they’re our brothers or sisters, we probably didn’t have a hand in how they initially developed.  Our Weavrs, on the other hand, feel like an extension of ourselves.  I’m not sure what that means, but it’s a weird thought on individuality and influence domains.