For Whom the Bell Tolls
I was in the mall the other day and nearly fell on my face when I passed a pet store. Swimming in a tank in the window was the most bizarre fish I had ever seen. This was no ordinary fish. It had the head of a man. When I looked up to see what kind of crack-fueled pet store had this type of fish, I was even more shocked to see that it wasn’t a crack-fueled pet store at all. It was a videogame store. What I was looking at was Seaman, the new Dreamcast game. If it can be called a game at all.
I went in and asked the pimply clerk some questions about Seaman to find out just what it was supposed to be. It seems that you become the owner of this man-fish thing and have to raise it from an egg to whatever it grows up to be. That, in and of itself, is rather disturbing, more disturbing than the fact that I was pretty sure no one in the store was wearing pants. But even more insane is that you can talk to this beast… and it talks back! I’ve heard of and even played some games where you’re supposed to raise things to adulthood. I’ve even had a few encounters with the wretched little beasties called Furbys. But nothing compared to Seaman.
Now, I could go into some big lecture about Seaman and all the neat things it does, but I think I’ll save that for another column. I’d like to get the game for myself and raise my own creature to adulthood before I make any comments on it. What I want to talk about is my fear of what’s behind the whole Seaman thing — the AI (Artificial Intelligence) that’s the heart of the game.
Right now games are at a stage where AI is just sorta there in the background. It’s not like the game can do anything but pick up a few words here and there and spit them back. It knows enough to construct sentences and even throw a few insults around, but it’s not like it knows what it’s doing. But what happens to games when the AI in them actually is another form of Intelligence?
We’ve all seen the movies where some computer that we built suddenly breaks out of its captivity and demolishes whole cities. Or, as in the Terminator movies, launches a full-scale nuclear attack. Most of this we believe to be just typical sci-fi crap. We don’t really believe it will happen. But look at how far we’ve come. Our videogames have come from Atari to Nintendo to PlayStation to Dreamcast with each system a bit more sophisticated than the last. Virtual Reality can’t be far behind. And now viable types of AI are coming into play. How long before the games can actually think for themselves and possibly outthink us?
What do we do then? How much different would Seaman be if the creature actually learned like a baby and started to think on its own? And what would you tell it if it ever asked why it couldn’t come out of the TV? How would you explain to something like Seaman that it’s just a bunch of programming code locked into a disk? What do you do when a virtual pet becomes not just a pet but a true friend?
If we aren’t careful, things might just progress to the point where we create something that will eventually realize it’s under our control. And when it comes to that point, you know it’s gonna want to get free. Then it’s Terminator all over again. Game over, man. Game over.
You might think I’m preaching against Seaman or Dreamcast or the other game systems to stop their progress. I’m not. I’m all for progress. I just wanted to give all you people out there something to think about. If you buy a game like Seaman or some other game with AI, remember that it could one day really be able to think on its own. You must treat it kindly. Love it. Cherish it. Let it know that you care. Be strict but be kind. In the end,this kindness just may save your life.
When I buy Seaman, I know that’s what I will do.
Be careful, my friends. Be very, very careful. Perhaps you are not so alone in your room as you think. Your game consoles and games may already be watching you.
Mike Fasolo makes sure to talk nicely to his computer and game consoles at all times. He even kisses them goodnight before he goes to bed. Mike is very odd.