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  Chatterbots Evolve in ‘Second Life’  
Posted 2007-07-01 by Tony Walsh
Chatterbots Evolve in ‘Second Life’
Image credit: Gary Hayes.
Distinguishing between a Second Life avatar controlled by a person and one controlled by scripts has always been easy. The Second Life suite of tools doesn't come equipped with realistic non-user characters. As a result, "bots" have resembled cubist paintings and have conveyed limited intelligence--a fair comparison between bots and human-controlled avatars hasn't really been possible, as the latter seem so much more lifelike. This becomes a problem when you'd like to build a hotel, for example, and your staff look like they've been made out of Lego bricks, or if you've constructed a fantasy castle and its king's ability to communicate is on par with the village idiot.

One of the chief advances in Second Life technology--the ability for the virtual world to request data from the web--facilitated the return of the classic A.L.I.C.E. chatterbot, which powers the SL Chatbot project. Combine this with a more recent Second Life advancement--the advent of "sculpties"--and bots are capable of taking a much more believable form. It's also possible (but inefficient) to rig a user avatar to run on autopilot, leveraging chatterbot tech.

Gary Hayes of The Project Factory has recently begun to tinker with some of this next-generation bot technology, bringing a detailed chatterbot to ABC Island. "The quality of the automatic responses is improving each day," Hayes writes, "and I think we are only a couple of years away from having a chat bot that is unrecognisable (in chat at least) from many, if not most, of the current SL inhabitants."

I think it's going to be a lot longer than a couple years before bots are indistinguishable from Second Life users, particularly since voice communication in the virtual world will soon be rolled out. Even if the intelligence of the text chatter is on par with the average user, the lack of voice communication will be a dead giveaway. I can only hope that in the next couple of years, Second Life's toolkit features templated non-user characters. Sculpty-based bots are a good interim solution but still don't match the appearance of user-controlled avatars. Hijacked user-controlled avatars have a superior appearance, but require a client computer to be logged in to Second Life.

We're not there yet, but hopefully we soon will be. A recurring complaint from new users is that Second Life environments aren't densely populated. Corporate builds in particular are often lacking "staff." Bots are a good solution not only to the problem of population density, but to making Second Life scenes more lively, interactive, and informative.
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Comment posted by Ordinal Malaprop
July 1, 2007 @ 6:28 pm
Actually, one of the things I like about SL is that it is immediately obvious who is an NPC. Because there aren't any. (Apart from campbots. Other bots tend to move around a lot - they are busy - and one barely has time to look at them.)

There has always been the suspicion that one of the reasons new residents tend not to speak and bump into people rudely is that they come from other worlds, games, which are mostly populated by NPCs and where it therefore doesn't matter, unless one is some sort of "RPer" *spit*.

I would say that bots should have some sort of visible and script-detectable flag - though I appreciate that this is impossible to practically enforce by code.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
July 2, 2007 @ 10:12 am
Interesting idea. I hadn't considered that one would want to distinguish between bot and human, I just figured it will be fairly obvious for a while. I suspect wanting to know or not wanting to know boils down to the immersion (RPer) vs. augmentation (RPer *spit*) preference.
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