The Underbelly of Second Life

How the guys at Second Life build their virtual environment and why bots with artifical intelligence might be companions of the future.
22 March 2009

Interview with 

Mike Hobbs


Second Health Hospital


Chris - As you may have noticed, here at the Naked Scientists we're fans of Second Life.  It's an interesting way to meet people from all over the world and do things like listen to great radio shows too. But the virtual world needs a great deal of technology and artificial intelligence to keep it going, as Meera Senthilingam recently found out when she met Mike Hobbs at a special evening which was held by Anglia Ruskin University as part of the Cambridge Science Festival.

Second Life Beach partyMike - Second Life is a lot of things to a lot of people. Essentially it's a 3D virtual world that allows users to create images, sounds and activities within an environment that supports this. They key thing that most people end up doing is communicating with other people. It's a way of mediating communication.

Meera - Obviously a lot of complicated technology is involved creating Second Life. Would you be able to summarise just the amount of technology involved in creating such a virtual world.

Mike - The basic unit of Second Life would be a sim or a simulation which is a square area represented on a map. That is essentially produced by a core on a chip. Computer chips these days can have dual cores or quad cores.  Many of these chips go together to make up entire racks of computing and so you can find we have tens of thousands of individual areas all stuck together. Each one of those is supported by a core on a chip on a board, in a computer, in a database in a service engine. Everything that you see and everything that you do is bits and bytes somewhere. It's entries in a large number of databases that recall where you've been, what you're doing, what you're trying to see at the moment and what someone else is seeing you do as well. It is quite accurate on your view of the world and someone else's view of the world is kept in sync: quite a technological feat!

Meera - When Second Life first came about it was thought it might just dominate the world. Do you think this is still going to happen with it?

Mike - No, I think Second Life is a part of the internet and has a particular technological base and technological limitations that it actually takes quite a lot more effort to generate these things than a lot of people may first assume. I suspect the air conditioning unit for the servers is taking up as much power as a small village or town. If you scale that up you see there are going to be fundamental limits.

Meera - Your background is in artificial intelligence. To what extent do you think artificial intelligence is being used in Second Life and to what extent could it be used in Second Life?

Mike - It's been used quite a lot because of the fairly powerful level of scripting. There's a language in Second Life that allows you to get objects and avatars to react in certain ways so you can programme interactions which is different to a lot of game environment which are more limited.

Meera - This evening you showed us the possibility for avatars to own dogs and this uses artificial intelligence, doesn't it?

Mike - Yes, the dogs have quite a sophisticated level of artificial intelligence. They have a basic set of actions. The user doesn't see the programming languages around them. They interact with them by asking them to do things like beg/howl and they can also add these actions together to get dogs to do more complicated sequences of actions. The dogs also have a random behaviour mode where they will do something out of their repertoire. If you praise them and tell them they're a good dog it will be more likely to use that particular action.

Meera - These dogs are actually being conditioned in the same way a real dog would.

Mike - Yes, they're being trained. In fact there are dog training classes or more accurately owner training classes. The dogs don't need training. It's the owners that need training on how to interact with the dog.

Meera - If it's possible for people to have dogs what else do you think is possible?

Mike - Certainly other animals, I know there's a big equestrian sector and there are more mundane activities such as vending machines and chat bots that will interact with you and say good morning greeting bots, which can be really annoying. They come up and say, "Hello, how are you - here's a card, read this, do that - can I take you on a tour," and that sort of thing. There are little bits of animated activity that give the impression of an artificial intelligence.

Meera - What would you say the benefits and advantages of using Second Life are?

Mike - Well, they're multiple. On a personal level I think it's a great way of interacting and meeting people because it's very easy to fall into chatting with people. I was wondering around an art exhibition and saw this annoying person actually dressed as a witch flying around the room on a broom. It turned out to be the artist and we had a nice conversation about how inspiration was created and I got a much greater insight than I would do just by looking at the static art. There's the communication side of things and the exploration side. There used to be a representation of Paris. There's certainly a representation of Krakow in Poland and science exhibitions and the National Physical Laboratory as interesting stuff going on.

Meera - Finally, where do you think Second Life is going next? In 5 years what do you think Second Life is going to be like?

Mike - To a certain extent Second Life is ahead of the curve. I think more things will be more like Second Life. I think there are some fundamental limitations as to how big it's going to get. I think the richness and quality of what's going on in it will improve.


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