Note: This is a long, rambling, train of thought post. The tl;dr version is: Emotional connection to bots happens, we get sad when things we care for go away, so there’s a big ethical risk associated with human-acting bots living in unportable platforms. We members of the ‘Bot 2.0’ community need to address this before we get too far.
A little over a year ago I started playing a cloud-based iPhone game called GodVille. GodVille describes itself as a Zero Player Game. You take the role of a god, you create a hero, and you send that hero out into the game world to fight on your behalf. Your hero is an independent being. When you come back to check on them, they will have recorded an entertaining diary of monsters fought, treasures collected, and items sold, all without your input. You only have four influence options on your hero: you can encourage them, which makes them heal faster, discourage them, which makes them fight better, shout down at them, and activate some of the items they pick up.
While it isn’t a very interactive game, it’s still a compelling experience. I check on my hero every day or two, look for interesting items to activate, and encourage him as much as I can.
Your GodVille hero can’t permanently die. They can be killed, but they’ll just wait around in the ground, writing notes in their diary until you resurrect them. (They’ll get tired of waiting for you and dig themselves out after a few days.) Not killing these bot-like characters is common in online games, permanent death is generally reserved for the hardcore modes of single player releases. (A really interesting article in wired.co.uk postulates that the free to play model is driving this, because developers don’t want to give you an excuse to walk away from their microtransactions, or get the feeling that your money was wasted.)
Once sufficiently powerful, your GodVille hero can adopt a pet, it’s own sub-bot that helps it fight and gains it’s own levels. My hero adopted a pet earlier this year. Over the a few weeks I watched the pet (a dust bunny named Felix) fight along side my hero, shield him from attacks and help heal him. The pet went up in level, gained some abilities, and everything was going just peachy.
Then I opened the app one day, and the pet was dead. My hero was carrying around Felix’s corpse. I went to the web and searched for pet resurrection, but found it wasn’t possible. Sometimes the hero will pay to have the pet resurrected, sometimes they’ll just bury them. After a grieving period, they’ll adopt a new one.
Felix’s death had a lot more of an emotional impact on me than I expected. I didn’t know Felix, I never met it, it really only existed as a few hundred bytes of data on a server somewhere. I’ve had more interactions with lamps in my house than I did with Felix. If you tip a lamp I really like off a table and shatter it into a million pieces, I may be angry, but I likely won’t feel an immediate emotional loss.
Felix’s death was hard because I’d made an emotional connection to him, watching him interact with my hero. His death highlighted my powerlessness in the game. I can resurrect my hero, within the confines of the game mechanic, but I can’t resurrect his pet. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I can’t bring Felix back to life.
Someday, inevitably, GodVille will shut down. People will move on to other projects, the server bill won’t get paid, iPhone apps won’t be the hot thing anymore. My hero, his diary and pet will disappear, and because he only lives inside the GodVille system (and being part of that system is a fundamental aspect of who he is), he will be gone forever.
Bruce Sterling at SXSW 2010 (photo by jonl)
Bruce Sterling gave a great talk about this at SXSW in 2010, about how the Internet doesn’t take care of it’s creations. We build and throw away. Startups form, grow like crazy, and if they don’t sufficiently hockey stick, they close. Or they get popular but not popular enough, and the team gets hired away to bigger players. Either way, the service shutters, the content and context disappears, history is lost. If it’s bad to have this happen to your restaurant checkins and photos, how much worse is it when it happens to virtual beings you’ve created an emotional attachment to? As creators, if we encourage platforms like this, roach motels where content comes in and never comes out, what does that say about us?
Eighteen and a half years ago I created my first character on a text based multiplayer internet game called Ghostwheel, hosted by my first ISP, Real/Time Communications. Ghostwheel was a MOO, an Object Oriented version of a Multi-User Dungeon, the progenitor of today’s MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. In a MOO you can create characters, build environments and objects, talk to other people, fight, and even create bots.
Real/Time Communications hosted Ghostwheel on a small server in their data center, a 486 desktop machine. People from all over the world connected to that server, created characters, and wove shared stories together over the early boom years of the internet.
A Late 90’s Austin Ghostwheel Austin Meetup
Eventually Real/Time Communications lost interest in hosting and maintaining Ghostwheel (and eventually Real/Time itself disappeared), so we took it elsewhere. As someone with colocated servers and ISP experience, I ended up hosting it on one of my machines. It now lives in a cloud VM, and even though the players have left for newer, more exciting destinations, everything they created, the characters, the setting, the dusty echoes of romances and feuds and plots all still exist. It still exists because someone with the wherewithal got their hands on it, and cared enough about it to keep it going, and it exists because MOO is an open source platform that doesn’t depend on one company being in business.
While piecing together the thoughts for this post it occurred to me the that the MOO server could probably be compiled on some modern linux based smartphone. They have more than enough CPU power and memory, and even a 3G connection is fine for text. I could conceivably load Ghostwheel on one and carry it around in my pocket. A whole world, nearly a thousand characters, tens of thousands of rooms and objects, dozens and dozens of species of monsters, all living in my pocket. I could hand it to people and ask them about the weight of a world. Every time I think about that it blows my mind. There’s definitely the kernel of something new and weird there.
So back to my point, as I’ve talked about before there’s a whole species of autonomous bots appearing around us that we relate to as nearly human. Like my GodVille character, we don’t have direct control over them, their autonomy being one of the things that makes them seem more human. They’re coming, they’re awesome, and I think in a few years they’ll be as common as Facebook accounts.
The most exciting work I’ve seen in this field is from the good folks at Philter Phactory and their Weavrs system. Weavrs are social bots defined by location, work and play interests, and groups of emotional tags. The Weavrs system hooks into Twitter, generates its own personal web pages (kind of like a bot-only mini-Tumblr) for each weavr, and is extensible through API driven modules called prosthetics. Some example prosthetics include the dreams prosthetic, which folds images the weavr has reposted into strange, creepy kaleidoscopes.
Weavrs are easy to create, they produce some compelling content, and they’re fun to watch. I’ve created a few, my wife has one, several of my friends have them. Interest is picking up from marketing and branding agencies, and where the cool hunters go, tech interests will inevitably follow.
The thing that’s starting to concern me is the possibility that Bots 2.0 could end up being another field like social networking where the hosted model gets out ahead of ownership and portability. What happens when the service hosting our bots disappears? What happens to all it’s posts, it’s images, it’s conversations? (I suppose I wouldn’t be qualified to work at a cloud provider if I didn’t have strong feeling about data portability.)
Weavrs as a whole isn’t open source, but it has lots of open source bits. Philter Phactory is trying to run a business, and I don’t begrudge them that. They have the first mover advantage in a field that’s going to be huge. I’m sure data portability is on their radar, but it’s a lot easier to prototype and build a service when you’re the only one running it. Conversely, it’s a lot easier to scale out a platform designed to be run stand-alone than to create a stand-alone version of a platform.
Once a few more folks start to realize how interesting and useful these things are, I think we’re going to see a Cambrian Explosion of social bots, and I’m sure plenty of entrants in the field won’t be thinking in terms of portability. They’ll be thinking about the ease of centralized deployment and management, and the reams of juicy data they can mine out of these things.
I remember in the early 2000’s feeling a similar excitement about self publishing (blogging). It was obviously going to be something that was going to be around forever once it was perfected. You could see the power in it’s first fits and starts, and it was just going to keep getting better. I think there are more than superficial similarities between self publishing platforms and social bot platforms, in fact.
Thinking back on that evolution, I think the archetype that we should hope for would be the WordPress model. I remember Matt Mullenweg visiting the Polycot offices in 2004 or so. He was passionate, had a great project on his hands, and I’m embarrassed to say that we weren’t smart enough to figure out a way to help him with it. Matt, Automattic and the WordPress community have done a great job of managing the vendor lockin problem while still providing a great hosted service people are willing to pay for. They get the best of both worlds, the custom WordPress sites and associated developer community, millions of blogs hosted by ISPs, the plugin developers, and still get to run a nicely profitable, extremely popular managed service. If wordpress.com goes away (god forbid), someone will still be maintaining the core codebase, and you’ll be able to export your data and run your own instance as long as you like. (Just remember to register your own domain name.)
I hope that the social bot community evolves something similar. I think that platforms are coming online to encourage that, and I think the people in the field are smart and recognize the ethical implications. Maybe in a year you’ll be able to run your bots on a hosted service or, if you’re motivated, run your own bot server and fiddle with it’s innards as you please. Who knows, you may even run them on your smartphone.