Grandroids FAQ

I’m putting FAQs for my Kickstarter project here, so that I can add to them without bothering everyone with updates. Oh, damn! I’ve already thought of another one… So if you have a question, check here first! I’ll add a new blog category.

1. Linux: Several people have asked if I’m going to support Linux. I’m committed to using Unity3D as my graphics engine (I chose it very carefully, and I really don’t think I could make this project happen without Unity). At the moment Unity doesn’t support Linux. It does support Windows, Mac, iPhone, Android, X-Box and Wii, so it’s certainly not impossible they’ll support Linux eventually too. In fact the underlying framework is already very Linux-friendly, so it shouldn’t be too difficult if they think there’s a market. A number of Unity developers have asked for it. However, it’s not something I have any control over. If Unity offers Linux support then I’ll definitely port the game to Linux too, but I can’t do anything until/unless that happens.

2. Collaboration: People have offered to help with the project in various ways, which I’m very flattered by. Thank you. The situation is this: As far as the core engine is concerned, I have to work alone. The computational neuroscience and biology involved is very, very complex and unique, and it has an impact on almost every aspect of the code (and even the graphics). There’s no way I could do this stuff in a collaborative environment. I have to keep everything inside my head, because I’m inventing completely new things as I go, and every time one part of it changes, it has knock-on effects throughout the system. So I’m just not in a position to share the core programming with anyone. Sorry.

Having said that, I’m writing an engine, at both the computing and biological levels. It will have an open API and an open genetics, so everyone is free to write new tools, create new objects and scenes, manipulate genes, create new species, etc. and I’d be delighted if you would do that. This is my living, so I need to retain some of the action, but if you had any connection to Creatures you’ll know that I design things in such a way that people can contribute. This project will be more open than Creatures was, because the technology for it has come a long way since then. Some of this may take a while to roll out, but I’ll be publishing updates as time goes on.

3. The AI: Is it for real? Sure it’s for real! But before anyone who’s not familiar with my work gets the wrong idea, I should point out that these creatures are not going to win Jeopardy! The field I work in is biologically-inspired AI, and I make complex, realistic living organisms. Think rabbits and dogs, not Terminator or Data. Most people don’t really question the nature of intelligence much, but I can tell you, winning a game of chess is easy peasy compared to recognizing the difference between a pawn and a bishop, or picking up the chess pieces. Just because we find something easy now, after years of infant practice, it doesn’t mean it IS easy. Most AI is not real intelligence at all. Especially game AI, which is to intelligence what a portrait is to a person – a shallow imitation of the real thing. What I’m interested in is real, learned intelligence and hopefully the first glimmerings of a real mind, with desires and fears and intentions. It’s much more exciting than a pseudo-HAL.

4. Timing, features, etc. I’m banking on this taking about another year. Hopefully I’ll get enough money to go on a little longer than that and do a better job. I don’t know how long until I have alphas, betas, etc. There’s a lot of very new stuff in this project so I don’t have a precedent. I don’t know what I’ll actually be able to achieve either. I’ve found that the key is to get the biology right. Biology is an incredibly powerful toolkit, and very flexible. Get that core right and lots of happy things will fall out of it. So I don’t work in the normal way, with specifications and schedules and milestones. It cramps my style. My job is to be a good biologist and let the creatures emerge. This is all about emergence.

5. Helping out: Some of you have said you don’t have any money but you’ll spread the word. Great! Thank you! I don’t have any money either, so I quite understand. I appreciate all tweets, posts, articles, submissions, reviews… anything. Well, perhaps not holding a knife to someone and stealing their wallet, but most things. I appreciate all kinds of support, even if just good wishes. Oh, and I read every single comment, etc., so I notice and care, even if I don’t get a chance to reply personally.

6. The name: I had to pick a project name for Kickstarter, so I went with Grandroids because I like it (thanks to Andrew Lovelock for coming up with it!). But I see this as a kind of brand name to describe what I “purvey” in general terms. The game will almost certainly be called something else, but I don’t have a clue what, yet. It depends how the creatures turn out and what world they tell me they want to live in.

7. What will the creatures look like? Dunno. In my head the stars of the show are rather like orangutan babies – fairly shy, semi-bipedal, cute, slightly shadowy creatures whose confidence you have to work hard to win, but we’ll see. I’ve also had requests for tails, dragons and cute eyes. The creatures are physics-based, and that is a very demanding thing, especially since computer physics engines have some strange characteristics. The creatures’  limbs have elastic muscles and the weights of different parts of their bodies have an effect on inertia and balance. It’s quite challenging getting one that has a fair chance of learning to walk and doesn’t fall over when it glances sideways! On the upside, real physics allows real intelligence, as well as complex interactions with the world, and their motion can be quite startlingly natural, compared to animation. Animation is cheating.

8. Evolution. Just so’s you know, this is not a game about evolution. The creatures will certainly be able to evolve in a pretty sophisticated way (perhaps even the most sophisticated way ever tried), but in practice it’s not the primary focus of the game. Natural selection is VERY SLOW, and the time it takes is proportional to both the complexity of the creatures that are evolving and their life span. For these creatures to live long enough for you to get to know them and care about them means that they will evolve very slowly – not that many orders of magnitude faster than happens in the real world. Selective breeding will definitely speed this up a lot, so evolutionary changes will doubtless happen. But the most important thing is actually variation – children will inherit characteristics from both parents and so will have their own unique personalities, even if they’re often problematic ones! Evolution is there, but it’s not the point of the game. I just wanted to be sure we’re all clear on that, because most A-life projects are primarily about evolving very simple creatures with very short lifespans.

Blowing my own trumpet

Okay, try not to cringe, but I really need your help. In the interests of full disclosure, that means money. Or if not money then influence. Please nicely.

I’ll just hit you with the funding pitch right off the bat. There’s a fancy widget I’m supposed to be able to embed in my blog but it doesn’t work in this theme, so here instead is a good old-fashioned hyperlink. Click on the image to take you to Kickstarter.

This is the first chance I’ve had to blog about it, because it’s taken off a lot more quickly than I expected and I’ve had a lot of people to thank and queries to field! It’s only the end of Day Two as I write this and the total is already over $11,000, much to my amazement and thanks especially to some extremely generous donors. I think there’s a real chance we can make this happen, with your help. Which is just as well, because I’ve almost completely used up my own resources after all these years of self-funded research and this is the only way I can continue with my work.

If you’ve already pledged then thank you SO MUCH! I really, really appreciate it. If you haven’t and you’d like to then that’s fantastic. My Creatures game inspired quite a lot of people to think differently about life, and even caused a number of them to take up scientific careers. I’m pretty sure this game will do the same, so it’s in a good cause as well as hopefully being fun. If you aren’t in a position to pledge then I quite understand – I’m not either! – but if you can help spread the word by tweeting, blogging, facebooking or pinning notices to telegraph poles then I really appreciate that too. The wider the news spreads, the more chance I have. Thank you.

Oh, and I see 600 people visited my blog today, which is a fair bit higher than usual, so if you came here via Kickstarter then I’m delighted to see you. I hope you’ll come back! :-)

Incidentally, earlier posts about the design of the artificial brain for this project can be found here, here, here, here, here, here and here. After that I went a bit quiet because I got stuck on a problem that was too complex even to tell you about. But I think I have the answer to that now. After months of banging my head against the wall it just came to me – poof! – while I was driving through the desert thinking about something else. Don’t you just love it when that happens?

[Edit: I fixed the links - whoops.]

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