Brussels, 15 Apr 2005
The field of social simulation - which uses computer programmes to experiment on social systems - has grown steadily since its birth in the early 1990s. Due to computing constraints, however, research has until now focused on the development of simple social systems.
But an international collaboration funded by the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) is about to change that. The NEW TIES project (new and emergent world models through individual, evolutionary and social learning) aims to grow the worlds first full-blown society based on artificial computer-based individuals.
The consortium includes leading researchers in artificial intelligence, language evolution, agent-based simulation and evolutionary computing, drawn from universities in the Netherlands, the UK and Hungary. Their three year collaboration is being funded with 1.55 million euro under the information society technologies (IST) programme of FP6.
According to the consortium, the artificial beings will have independent behaviours within the overall computer simulation, much like the characters in popular gaming simulations, such as SIMS and Black and White. The major difference is that the NEW TIES characters will have the ability to learn and evolve.
The objective is to evolve a society capable of understanding and exploring its environment by means of cooperation and interaction. In order to achieve this within such a complex programme, the artificial beings or 'agents' will be given the ability to develop a communication system or language in order to cooperate and survive, though it will be up to the agents themselves to develop the particular language.
They will develop this and other advanced skills by means of individual learning, evolutionary learning and social learning. Indeed, one of the many novel elements of the project is the agents' capacity for social learning by passing knowledge from one to another, for example through 'mothers' teaching their 'children'. One possible outcome of this process of social learning, and one that would certainly excite the team, is evidence of an emergent culture developed jointly by the programme's agents.
Besides the technological innovation inherent in the project, it is hoped that the research will also have wider implications for the design of information technologies, evolutionary computing systems, agent-based computer programming, artificial intelligence and, crucially, linguistics. According to team member Nigel Gilbert from the University of Surrey in the UK: 'This project is the next step on in the study of the evolution of language.'
Professor Gilbert continued: 'Until now a project like this was impractical and the stuff of science fiction, no one thought that it would be possible to do. But now that the massive computing resources needed to grow an artificial society are much more accessible, and work on the evolution of language has progressed, we are now in a position to attempt to grow an artificial society on this scale.'
And even if the team succeeds, there will still be major challenges to overcome, as the project's coordinator, Gusz Eiben from the Free University Amsterdam, explains: 'One of the greatest scientific challenges of this project is not only to evolve a language but to understand it.'
Professor Eiben concludes: 'If language evolution indeed takes off as we hope, how can we understand what the individuals discuss with each other? We intend to put up a number of monitors to look at how language is developing and try to look not only at the end result, but also at the process. Thereby, we hope to be able to keep up with the language's evolution.'
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