Four-year-old Eddie might behave like a typical young boy. Outside of the Second Life virtual world, however, he is anything but.
The child is a product of logic-based artificial intelligence and complex modelling techniques, and operates on what has been said to be the most powerful university-based supercomputing system in the world.
A creation of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Eddie has his own set of beliefs, and the ability to reason about his beliefs to draw conclusions in a manner that matches human children his age.
This includes a partially-developed "Theory of Mind", which allows him to understand, predict and manipulate the behaviour of other agents and of even human players, with whom researchers expect the technology to be able to one day interact with in the real, physical world.
"Second Life is remarkably easy to work with, and is very popular," said Selmer Bringsjord, head of Rensselaer's Cognitive Science Department and leader of the research project.
"But our technologies can be applied to any digital environment, and indeed we are specifically aiming, with IBM, at environments in which the physical and the virtual directly interact."
Eddie is only the first step of what Bringsjord called a "divide-and-conquer" strategy of prudent engineering.
Eventually, more advanced versions of the artificial intelligence technology will be put to use in entertainment and gaming, as well as immersive training and education scenarios.
"The apps, frankly, are endless," Bringsjord said. "Imagine being able to step into a simulation environment in which you interact with synthetic characters as sophisticated as those seen in Star Trek's holodeck."
"It's one thing to read about trauma scenarios as a first responder; it would be quite another if you could enter a simulation in which, courtesy of synthetic characters at the level we seek, you could strive to get a disaster under control, with the look and feel of the real world."
"Or imagine a hostage situation: How do you prepare for negotiating with a terrorist holding a hostage? Now, it's textbook and playacting. But what if you could enter the holodeck and match wits with a synthetic character that has the ability to reason in earnest about your mind, and about what you're trying to do? This is actually a demo we're considering trying to engineer," he said.
Currently, the team is grappling with computational tractability issues to do with the sorting of growing amounts of knowledge that is collected as a artificially intelligent character matures.
As Eddie operates entirely on formal logic and well-defined theorems, reasoning is not automatically fast, Bringsjord said, explaining the need for clever engineering and high-performance hardware.
This research is supported by IBM and other outside sponsors, and requires the use of Rensselaer's Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI), which provides more than 100 teraflops of computing power through massively parallel Blue Gene supercomputers, POWER-based Linux clusters, and AMD Opteron processor-based clusters.