Saturday, July 25, 2009

Scientists Worry

Okay, how could I resist? The New York Times runs an article with the headline "Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man". When I first saw it, I couldn't stop laughing. But it only gets better from there.

"A robot that can open doors and find electrical outlets to recharge itself. Computer viruses that no one can stop. Predator drones, which, though still controlled remotely by humans, come close to a machine that can kill autonomously."

What in this has anything to do with intelligence? Opening doors, maybe. It at least requires a bit of coordination; cats can do it, but most fish can't (though there may be other reasons for that). Being hard to wipe out? Later in the article, viruses are described as having reached a "cockroach" stage because they can't be easily gotten rid of. Yeah, sort of like cockroaches, or, I don't know, viruses? The least intelligent (arguably) living organisms in existence? And killing autonomously -- viruses can do that too, as can every predatory creature in existence, no matter how dumb.

But what really takes the cake is the caption on the photo of a robot that can plug itself in when its batteries run low. I quote: "This personal robot plugs itself in when it needs a charge. Servant now, master later?"

Ahahahahaha! Sorry. I thought I was in a 60's B-movie for a second. I usually put a good deal of trust in the NYTimes to come up with stories about things that are important, or at least coherent. This time, they've really let their readers down. Which is a pity, because the second quarter of the article is actually somewhat meaningful. When they talk about what actual scientists are actually afraid of, it becomes clear that it's not about intelligence at all.

In fact, they're thinking about two main problems: first, the rather pedestrian worry that computers will take human jobs (it's happened before, it'll happen again, and we seem to have survived somehow); and second, the far more important concern that people will have difficulty adapting to advances in technology. This is really something worth writing an article about -- the idea that our current social structures won't stand up to rapidly advancing technology, AI or otherwise. It's the same problem the music industry has been struggling with for years now, without anything even remotely resembling intelligence involved (on either end, heh). They take the time to publish a few interesting questions the scientists came up with: "What could a criminal do with a speech synthesis system that could masquerade as a human being? What happens if artificial intelligence technology is used to mine personal information from smart phones?" Unfortunately, they seem more interested in sounding alarms than actually answering these questions.

After this, the rest of the article is devoted to the usual singularity nonsense, which makes for great sensationalist reading (once) but doesn't really forward the dialogue here. I'm not really the person to pick up the ball the NYTimes dropped, but I'll at least say a little about the issues they should have been talking about.

Computer intelligence isn't really a concern here; in fact, as time goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the label "AI" exists only to impress and frighten the laypeople (for those who don't know, these days it's mostly statistics). Intelligence isn't the operative variable in determining whether or not a particular technological breakthrough causes societal problems. What matters is how it can be used in people's daily lives, to do things that are already possible differently and more efficiently. It doesn't matter how huge Google's database of personal information is if they don't have efficient algorithms to make sense out of all the numbers. A criminal can already simulate another person's voice with a vocoder or just a talent for imitation, so I'm not so worried about intelligent speech systems. Similarly, I'm not (yet) worried about Ray Kurzweil's singularity, because it's about a completely different mode of existence; it wouldn't so much clash with our society as rewrite it. Someone needs to think about these things, but they're blue-sky next to the real and present concerns (I won't say dangers) caused by any technological innovation that affects our way of life.

All right, enough of this rant. I hope the Times does a bit better next time they decide to cover a computer science conference. Really, very few of us take over the world for a living. I suppose I ought to thank them, though, for demonstrating that the infamous Frankenstein complex is alive and well in the modern age. Here's to more enlightened times; the singularity can't get here soon enough.

(Oh, by the way. This post came pretty quickly after the last one, but make sure to read that one too! It has important news and such.)

And the gates open

It turns out that making a forum site isn't as time-consuming as I thought. Acorn Rack really makes things easier. At any rate, after a brief flurry of industry, Steampunk Academy is now accepting applications! The actual story probably won't start moving for another day or two -- I'd like to get a sense of the sort of characters people are making and the sort of stories they'd like to tell -- but you can certainly make a character and socialize (IC or OOC). I'm pretty excited about this now; it looks like this project's actually going through! If you'd like any help with character creation or the like, just ask me (Glenn/Astell/Eleven/...). Hope to see you there!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The foundations are planted

Far more quickly than I expected, Steampunk Academy has a website. Please feel free to log on and look around; you can use the username guest and blank password. There's not much there yet at all, but I'm getting there, piece by piece. We're not quite to the point of accepting applications yet, so please don't submit one unless you'd like to help build the site; hopefully sometime during the weekend I'll have something a little more presentable. In the meantime, any advice or feedback on the site design is appreciated.

Meanwhile, I've been thinking about some different approaches to character ownership. In a GM-less game (which this will be, by the way), the usual idea of NPCs doesn't really make sense -- if everyone's a player, every character is a player character. In other words, someone has to fill even the bit parts, so why not share the love? In the forum environment, it's particularly easy for one person to play multiple characters, since almost nothing is in realtime. So, this seems like a great opportunity to try giving everyone (or at least everyone who wants them) multiple roles.

I've been thinking of a sort of character auction system; when a new character comes up (someone's advisor, a rival club, the villain's flunky, a hall monitor), either the person who introduced the character can claim it, or it can be put up for grabs. Of course, we'd need some guidelines to prevent overloading and obvious conflicts of interest (you have first dibs on your family members, but not your mortal enemies), but in general I think it could be a lot of fun. Anyway, we'll see how it plays out; the odds that I'll have forgotten about this by next week are rapidly dropping. Stay tuned, and I hope to see you on campus soon!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A plan

So, I've been thinking (never a good sign) about the possibility of starting up a forum RPG of my own. It would probably be easier than running a game in person or over Skype (at least from a logistics perspective), and would be considerably easier than writing a rules-heavy game from scratch. Of course, this has perils of its own; among other things, it would be my first time running a forum of any sort, though I have a few veterans I might be able to ask for help. If I forget about it by next week, it won't be the first time, but I'm slightly more optimistic about this than most of my "projects".

Of course, it has to be steampunk. Recently I've been fixated on the idea of a steampunk academy, drawing inspiration from various institutions of higher learning both real and fictional. After all, the whole point of steampunk is research and invention, and what better place for that than a university? And it never hurts to write what you know.

I've given it the tentative title of PRAISE, for Polytechnic Research Academy and Institute of Science and Engineering (yes, it's long and redundant, but I like acronyms). It's huge, and full of everything an academy ought to have -- eccentric professors, cutting-edge lab equipment, political scheming, clubs for anything and everything, and so on. Combined with the loose timescale and concurrency of the forum approach, this seems like it'd open up potential for plenty of fun side stories and world building. Of course, I'd need a story too, or at least plot hooks. Give it time.

Anyway, this is obviously in the very early stages. I'll put things up here as I go (if I go), and I'll certainly link to it if the site itself ever comes into existence. Naturally, all my readers will be invited to join; I'd be glad to have you, whether you've roleplayed before or not. Feedback of any sort is always welcome, too. Low odds of completion aside, I'm pretty enthused about this right now. We'll see how it turns out.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

News from the front, part 2

I've been here for a few weeks now, and I'm pleased to report that it's as fun as I expected. There are some really good writers out there on these internets, and that they happen to be nice people too is almost too much of a coincidence. (Although some of the nicest people I know I've met through roleplaying, so maybe it's not a coincidence after all.)

I've also had some time to reconsider the question of timing, and there are a couple of advantages after all, things I'm surprised I overlooked before. First of all, it means that the game's pace is a bit more flexible; I hate it when a session's plot gets rushed along because we only have n hours to get through it. It also means that side plots and character building can go on concurrently with the main story, instead of slowing everyone else down. And, of course, you avoid the perennial problem of having to talk over people to be heard, or missing your chance to act, which is a boon for the less experienced and/or less assertive roleplayer. Overall, a forum game is different enough from a tabletop game that I'm inclined to stop comparing them, and start trying to judge it on its own merits. At any rate, it's certainly not the second-rate substitute that I envisioned before I got started.

As far as dealing with more than two people, the group I'm in seems to have adopted the convention of posting round robin. This is a bit frustrating, since the timing doesn't always work out -- sometimes I feel like I'm cutting into somebody else's conversation, and at other times I don't really have anything to say, but have to post so I don't hold everyone else up. It does mean that everyone gets a chance to say something at regular intervals, though, which is a nice thing to have in a large group. If I were running one myself, I might go for something a little more free-form, but then again I don't have nearly enough experience with forums (roleplay or otherwise) to be confident in my opinions on these things.

In other news, the newest installation in the Shin Megami Tensei metaseries was recently released. SMT wasn't particularly known for anything until the release of Persona 3, which captured the hearts of gamers with its unique aesthetic (high school kids shooting themselves in the head to summon monsters). Since then, it's apparently become fairly popular; Devil Survivor was sold out in the first few stores I tried, though this might be because Atlus likes doing limited releases.

The game itself is notable for its original combination of (unoriginal) elements -- it's a strategy RPG which becomes a normal turn-based RPG for a bit when you attack -- and for possibly having more endings than anything since Chrono Trigger. It also takes the obvious but uncommon step of making the various small choices you make throughout the story actually have an effect. In fact, it's one of the few JRPGs that actually allows and encourages roleplaying. This and the number of endings combine to add a lot to the feel of the game; it's entirely possible to reach a point where you have three major options, all of them terrible. It's been a while since a JRPG has had me sitting there agonizing about which is the lesser of two evils. Or maybe that's just me. Either way, it's a lot of fun, and only increases my desire to track down some of the rare old SMT games (particularly Nocturne).

Well, that's it for now. No sweeping thesis on reality here. Move along.