Humans on Public Transit and The Hope For Adaptive AI

August 05, 2016 Written by

Going to work is essential for collecting a paycheck (believe me, I checked).

Through the extended use of the public transit system, I find myself people watching. Many people have individual idiosyncrasies that just cannot be ignored.

Eating cereal on a bus, for instance, is something that just doesn’t quite make sense. You intently watch the bowl of soggy Fruity Pebbles and milk slosh around with each turn and bump; hoping that it jettisons beyond the lip of the bowl and gets everywhere. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, and you feel immensely disappointed and yet proud of this stranger’s cat-like abilities.

The enjoyment that comes from watching people can be funny, sometimes terrifying and often sad. As humans, it’s not considered politically correct to stare and judge, but we sometimes have no choice. We're all just too interesting to ignore completely.

The reason I bring this up is not to make fun of anyone in particular or even describe some bizarre characteristic that I have seen during my time with public transit. This isn’t about anything serious even. It’s just an honest look at life and the correlation between life and gaming and how those two things can, hopefully, collide to make something that’s near perfection and uncanny in its truth.

How do patrons of public transit relate to video games? Let me tell you.

Next to one of the bus stops I frequent is a barrier of sturdy metal bars. I could sit at the bus stop proper, but I tend to be a rebel and break the conventions by sitting upon these red bars behind it. On the other side of the barrier is a row of food carts - most of which are closed this early in the morning. The food carts cast a shadow over the barrier and can cause a sort of breeze not found when stepping out of the shadows. I’m usually okay with this - especially when I have a jacket - for I prefer the cold over heat any day.

A week ago, a woman in her late forties came up and sat on the barrier beside me to wait for the bus along with me. We exchanged no words as I usually have tactically placed earbuds in my ear to avoid any unwanted conversation. As I sat there on my phone, I could see the lady’s hand move over to her arms and stroke them causing friction to create a sense of warmth. The shade was just too much for her body to handle. After a few moments of braving the breeze, she stood up and walked over to the other side of me and sat between the gap in the carts which allowed light to pass through.

“Praise the sun!” she would have said if she were a Dark Souls fan; she didn’t.

Fast forward a week and I’m back at this same bus stop. I’m sitting in the same spot as I always do because we all know that change is a difficult thing to experience. I’m still there, and I’m still using my phone as I wait for the same bus I always wait for when I’m taking this route. In the corner of my vision, I notice someone walking up toward me on my right. I look up and take a glance at who is heading in my direction. It’s her again. Now, this all happened within 2 seconds, but it’s something that stuck with me the rest of the day. She looked at the spot where she had once sat and remembered how it was cold. I kid you not when I say that, in her eyes, I saw her make a decision never to sit inside of the shade again. Her feet hesitated about as long as her brain did and then she headed over directly toward that small gap between the carts with her old pal, the sun.

As a human, she was able to understand WHY she didn’t want to sit in that cold section again and HOW she could correct this predicament she found herself in, and it only took her a few seconds to recall that horrific memory of her freezing to death that Tuesday morning on a populated sidewalk. Now, what if she were an AI in a computer game?

Maybe it’s the fact that I have been playing too much Dishonored lately (a game I never had a chance to finish until now). Or maybe I just like to overthink and overanalyze things. Either way, it got me thinking. Typically in games, Dishonored for example, the enemies are set on a distinct path. When you interrupt that path by making them alert of your presence, the enemies, or more accurately sentries, can explore what they think they saw. The sentry will walk over to your last location, look around anxious, and then infamously state something to the effect of “Guess it was nothing.” and then walk on over to their predestined pathway. As a game that requires you to develop and understand a pattern of the potential threats, this seems like an accommodation to ease than it is a mechanic of realism.

There have been a few games that have done some great things with their AI, but it’s still not quite enough to give you the utmost realism. I started to think of the lady. I started to imagine if she was an AI. What if she was a bot trying to find the warmest spot possible.

Imagine you, the player, are taking control of a beam of light.

At first, you cast your light upon a chair. The AI lady walks across the room a few times before noticing your light. She walks up to you and takes a seat. She smiles. All is well. Mission complete.

Stage Two. You cast your light upon the same chair. The lady sits down and is just delighted by how warm she is. Mission complete.

Stage Three: You cast your light upon a different chair; one that sits at the other end of the room. You watch the lady get a tad bit chilly in the shade, and you watch her get up and walk toward you. You have warmed the frozen woman. Congrats. Mission complete.

Stage Four: The lady looks at her usual chair and notices that the seat is just not as warm and inviting as she is used to but this other chair seems pretty nice. She walks over to that chair and enjoys the warmth of the sun that you cast upon this beautiful wicker chair.

NOTE: I apologize for not announcing my Sunlight VS Lady strategy game at this year’s E3, but I decided to save my announcement for this article.

That example doesn’t really do anything I’m trying to say here justice. But it does when you imagine that each time you look into the eyes of that lady, you can see a moment where the lady makes an internal decision NOT to sit in the shade despite how much she knew that the one chair was her favorite chair because they had a few good levels together. In typical games, you would see the lady walk up and down the room until she saw where your beam of light was sitting and then she would head to that and be happy. But would she be happy? Or is it just you planting that thought in her mind?

Let me explain this in the context of a Stealth game. Take a game like Dishonored again. Imagine yourself as Corvo, the protagonist in Dishonored. You’re standing on the top of a building, and you see a Guard walking back and forth on a bridge. He’ll stand at one end of the bridge, stretch his arms, and then turn around and head over to the other side where he’ll just do the same thing (pause and turn). You plan your attack. You decide that by going down to the street level and heading down the steps going underneath the bridge, you can wait for him to cross it at a certain point. And then climb up on the bridge using Blink (the game’s teleport mechanic) and walk up behind the poor Guard before he can make it to the other side.

So you head down below the bridge and avoid all detection. Nice work so far. You are ready. Blink is equipped, and your blade is pointed out; ready to attack. You patiently wait to figure out the Guard’s timing. When you feel confident enough, you hit F5 to quicksave (you can never be too careful) and then you get ready to strike!

Now’s the time to point the Blink cursor at the ledge and pull yourself up! But before you do that, you see something glimmer at the corner of your eye. You pick up three coins! Good job! You immediately set your gaze back up to the bridge and hop over the railing. You were too late! The Guard has just turned around, and you can see the little white lightning bolts pop over his head. He has seen something! You don’t want to kill him, and you aren’t entirely screwed where you have to revert to your safe place, so instead you hop back over the railing and duck under the overpass. You wait it out in the dark. Maybe he’ll head down the stairs and investigate, maybe he won't.

This is where the advanced and the basic can differ. Typical AI would either check it out and then head back to their regular routine once they realize that the dude they saw jump out of nowhere less than 30 feet away from them was just a bird or something.

An advanced, adaptive, realistic AI could have investigated a little bit longer before thinking “This isn’t right…” then further investigating it. After a thorough examination, they can give up because, hey, they’re getting paid to be a sentry, not a detective! But once they head back on the bridge, I would say they would probably hang out at the railing of the bridge, occasionally looking down. They can look left and right down the bridge to see if anyone is heading near them, but mostly focusing on the area below the bridge. If you’re able to Blink yourself far enough away, you might be able to zoom in on the Guard’s face. He looks perplexed. Worried. Paranoid. You made this Guard into something more.

This would make the Guard more determined. Show your face again and he WILL come after you. He knows there's someone up to no good around here, and he's going to do what he can to stop them. If you’re unfortunate enough to cross his path again, you would be able to see the look on his face that is a mix of both panic and satisfaction; panicked that he might die - satisfied he hasn’t gone insane.

I understand that this is all just wishful thinking on my part.

There is no way that this could ever be a factor in a video game. If characters were that detailed in video games, I would take a non-violent approach through much of it just to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.

That being said, it’s fun to imagine a world in which we can play a game that immersive to where we have to actually outsmart the bad guys and not just understand their very rudimentary pathing.

If we’re lucky, we’ll get to play a game like that in the future. Or maybe we won’t. Maybe the AI will be too advanced, and they’ll be capable of thinking on their own. Maybe they’ll become self-aware. Maybe people might start giving rights to these characters. Maybe killing these people in games would be considered full-fledged murder. Maybe games will only consist of giving warm light to characters just so they’re happy.

Maybe we are the AI. Oh no. What have I done?

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James McKeever

When not playing video games, James is usually found playing video games. When he simply does not have time for video games, he goes to a thing called "Job" where he makes money to feed himself and his wife and to buy more video games. Since he was too scared to use the controller himself at the young age of 3, James started his gaming career as a "navigator" of sorts instructing his father when to jump in Super Mario Brothers. Since then, the fear of controllers has subsided and James can now jump freely, circumventing the middleman.