In Kuato’s Game World, Knowledge is Power, and the AIs are Friendly

Your spaceship has crash-landed on an alien world. You are apparently the last survivor. The ship’s electrical and life-support systems are failing, the atmosphere outside is poisonous, and hostile life forms are intruding. To stay alive, you’re going to have to fix some things, and that’s going to require some computer skills. Fortunately, “Alice” is there to help. She’s the ship’s computer, and she can show you what you need to know to hack the ship’s other systems.

The scenario is fictional—it’s the setting for an educational video game about coding, in the works at Kuato Studios, a London- and San Francisco-based startup. But Alice, interestingly, is real (though her name might change soon). She’s a virtual personal assistant (VPA), baked into Kuato’s game using artificial intelligence technology licensed from SRI International in Menlo Park, CA.

Alice is a kind of omnipresent helper, available to answer players’ questions, or at least guide them to the places where they can find the answers. The game is designed specifically to give 11- to 15-year-olds an introduction to XML, JavaScript, and other languages, but it’s envisioned as just the first in a series of educational and adventure games starring characters driven by SRI’s VPA technology. Founder and CEO Frank Meehan tells me that the company, which is bankrolled by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing, aims to release the iPad-based game by the end of this year. (It doesn’t have a title yet; we presume it won’t be Go Ask Alice.)

In a meeting last week, Meehan walked me through some early sequences from the game, as well as the philosophy behind the project, which he says is all about demystifying computer programming and “making a game for learning that’s also fun.” An admirable goal—but the most captivating thing about the project, to me, is Alice, the placeholder name for the VPA that keeps the game moving.

Fixing a butterfly: In this coding minigame, players must rewrite XML tags to fix a glitch in the code for a virtual insect.

Alice comes from same line of personal assistants as Siri, the question-answering system built into Apple’s iPhone 4S. I’ve written extensively about Siri and about the other members of this family, including TrapIt, a Web- and iPad-based personalized news search engine, and Lola, a banking assistant co-developed by SRI and Spanish bank BBVA. But the way Meehan explains it, Alice is different from her siblings in at least two ways. For one thing, she’s the first application of SRI’s research to turn up in a game (Kuato has an exclusive license to use SRI’s technology in the areas of education and video games). And crucially, she’s able to learn about the humans she’s helping.

That’s a small change that makes a big difference. The first generation of VPA tools built at SRI were “very much around intent recognition and linking into a search engine,” says Meehan, who is also a partner at Li’s venture firm, Horizons Ventures. “But all of these areas in terms of deeper knowledge [of the user] weren’t done. I can ask Siri what is the weather in San Francisco, and then press Siri again, and it has no recollection of what we were just talking about.”

Alice is a more attentive helper, according to Meehan. She remembers where players are in the game, what they’ve learned, and where they’ve run into problems. “We are focusing much more on learning and personalization,” he says. “We are very interested in the humanization of software.”

In that sense, Alice represent a small step toward the realization of human-like AIs from science fiction, such as the character Continuity in William Gibson’s 1988 novel Mona Lisa Overdrive, or the interactive book at the center of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. But Meehan says Alice was also inspired by … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “In Kuato’s Game World, Knowledge is Power, and the AIs are Friendly”

  1. I would like to try this game. Looks very interesting. Hmmm…