20.07, Tuesday 8 Feb 2011

There's a neat video demo of a 3D road generator. The user clicks on a landscape where they want the road to run, and the system generates architecturally sound roads, road cuts, tunnels, bridges, and suspension bridges. I assume there's some kind of civil engineering rules built-in. While you watch, the user shows how hills and valleys can be introduced and automatically compensated for.

A road runs from A to B. You choose the A and the B. The system follows engineering rules to make it work.

Then there are city generators. I don't know what rules this is following. Not engineering constraints, but the observed laws of cities: that high residential land value tends to happen where there are good views; that high commercial land value tends to have tall buildings; that cities are organised into hubs with major roads for spokes; and so on. (I'm guessing on the rules.)

Another city generator: Suicidator City Generator screenshots.

Also, in a funny kind of way, this retro city which is also a mobile phone interface: the panel is a living, breathing portal to help the user fully interact with their mobile phone handset. As a user pans through the cityscape, all the different elements link to the functionality of the user’s phone. Text messages appear playfully on billboards, calendar events arrive by train, a passing airplane shows your call history and much more.

I don't know what appeals to me. Some combination of these three things: autonomous simulation; toy to fiddle with; randomness but realness.

Virtual pets and virtual people

I get a similar feeling with virtual pets - that is, toys like Tamagotchi - and computer games like Animal Crossing (a virtual life in a little town with artificially intelligence animal friends) and Little Computer People (a virtual fellow who lives in a house inside your computer, from 1985).

It's that feeling again -- the feeling that there's another world just beyond the looking glass, something alive, but simple enough that it doesn't feel entirely independent from me. What is this, some kind of mix of separateness but ownership, a god complex?

A couple of appearances in fiction: Superman's miniature city-in-a-bottle, Kandor; Philip K. Dick's hobby build-an-earth-in-a-bubble Worldcraft.

The space trading computing game Elite would simulate entire galaxies... and on computers from 1982, what's more. Get this: Their first idea had been to furnish the machine with the details of (say) 10 solar systems they'd lovingly handcrafted in advance: elegant stars, advantageously distributed, orbited by nice planets in salubrious locations, inhabited by contrasting aliens with varied governments and interesting commodities to trade. But it quickly became clear that the wodge of data involved was going to make an impossible demand on memory. ... What if, they asked themselves, they got the machine to invent the map as well? To avoid the storage problem, it would need to build solar systems on the fly; that is, it would have to come up with names and distances and dimensions right when they were called for, that instant, rather than pulling them out of memory. Yet these unstored, instantaneous inventions also needed to be solid and dependable. Stars and planets needed to stay where they were put. And so that's what they did.

Sim social network

Which brings me to something I once wanted: an artificial, generated social network, where I am the only real person. I wrote about it in 2006, in a story called They follow each other on the wind. A device called MyPeopleGalaxy. Here's a bit of it:

It is a shiny blue pocket-sized $20 blogging device with artificial intelligence and a whopping big hard drive. All I did was start blogging into it. It took my words, and the clever stuff the fella did wove those words, and manipulated them and whatever else, and over time it learned English. And after a while more, it started simulating more bloggers who moved in one by one by one. Fake ones. 2 million bloggers in my pocket.

A little bit more: In MyPeopleGalaxy, your blog posts are shaken into words and recombine into comments to your posts, and other blogs are inspired by yours. You can see echoes of your vocabulary and ideas in the blogs that surround you. This is the best of artificial prose pioneered by the spam email people, taken and used to generate fake journal posts for 14 year-olds. Good grief. I couldn’t put it down.

And you know what? I still want it. Simulations of people, all with individual names, personalities and interests, tens of thousands of them, all generated. It shouldn't be too hard: there's already a record of each of us in some marketing database somewhere. Just roll the dice on that and invent people who don't exist.

And all of them with their own Facebook pages, and their own status updates, and their own friends lists, and their own blogs. All in their own big social network. That shouldn't be too hard either -- I can barely tell the difference between generated spam and real websites and email nowadays, so the technology must exist.

And I want them all making friends, falling out, going through the whole lifecycle of relationships, copying jokes and links off each other, getting obsessed with virals, watching YouTube, reading the news, all the rest, all of it, every single bit of it. All generated, all artificial, a colossal baroque folly. I reckon it'd be pretty easy to do.

An ant farm that I can watch. A soap opera with 10,000 computer-controlled software actors.

And I want to have a profile right there too, on Fakebook, the only real person of the lot of them. Single player socialising. It's horrible, I get that, a kind of pornography but of friendship and attachment. But I reckon it'd be fun to play, crazy addictive, and I have a hunch there would be some interesting spin-off applications. Toy mirror worlds.

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