Scientists build a world of 'software beings'

Researchers in Europe are near to launching a project aimed at studying how artificial beings interact.

Politicians could one day determine the results of elections before they take place, thanks to a European research project that will study social interactions between millions of virtual human beings.

Five European universities are collaborating on the New Ties project, where they plan to create millions of "software beings" (human beings that live in computers) with the goal of studying how they interact and evolve.

The software beings don't have names, but they do have distinct characteristics, including gender, life expectancy, size and metabolism. Their traits will be passed on as they reproduce, but they'll also be able to learn and gain new characteristics.

Two thousand artificial beings have been created so far in a single computer, but the goal is to create a grid or cluster of computers to host potentially millions of them, said Gusz Eiben, a professor of computer science at Vrije Universiteit in the Netherlands and the project's leader.

Plenty of research has been done into artificial intelligence, but that research hasn't focused on how artificial beings interact, he said. The results of the research could be applied to several fields.

"You could use this for engineering robot collectives," he said. "We could tell them how to engineer the minds of a group of robots in such a way that the group as a total would behave in a desirable way."

Sociologists, anthropologists and politicians could also use the research to simulate reactions to events. "If we'd had this already calibrated on a large scale, so you could have a good model simulation of Europe, we wouldn't have needed a referendum about the European Constitution," Eiben joked.

Game developers could also use the technology, to create more intelligent characters that learn and adapt. "Giving intelligence to them would make the games more challenging," he said.

The researchers will discover how the beings learn and interact by studying "decision trees" that represent their minds. The trees will show things like priorities, such as whether a being thinks food is more important than sex, Eiben said. The researchers will watch how they learn language, work together to find and store food, and distinguish between friend and foe.

Eiben and his colleagues at the University of Surrey in the U.K., Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Napier University in Edinburgh and Tilburg University in The Netherlands, have struggled with various aspects of the project, including building the grid computer. Instead, the researchers may ultimately use a cluster architecture, Eiben said.

Even the current system, housed on just one computer, has problems with slowness and memory leaks. But Eiben hopes that many of those problems will be solved in about a month when the researchers expand the project and begin to study the social interactions of the software beings.

The universities received a Euro 1.6 million (US$2 million) grant from the European Commission for the project, which began in September 2004 and is scheduled to run until September 2007.