Avatars in Second Life?

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También en español You can refer back to our last post talking about Krishnamurti as an example of two concepts of avatar as they played out in the life of one person. Initially, Krishna was publicly identified as an avatar representing a fixed system of belief, Theosophy. When he renounced this role that he had been thrust into, his willingness to sacrifice the false social foundation of his life to honor the truth he found in his own mind made him into an avatar of the living truth, the only thing humans can achieve or become avatars for.

he word avatar has a much more recent meaning in the universes of virtual reality (VR). There are a number of virtual realities in which vast numbers of people cooperate and compete, design and build, and interact with each other in all manner of visually simulated environments and actions. Best known is probably Second LifeWorld of WarcraftMinecraft, and others built on variations of theme and system architecture. Among these, the avatar concept is most fully developed in Second Life.

In Second Life (SL), you are called a resident. Your presence is represented by a visibly displayed 3-D figure, you as an avatar, at a location within the simulated world that is visible to all participants within visual range. Your avatar has a great many basic and inherited characteristics, as well as the ability to accommodate a virtually unlimited number of visible, functional, and interactive augmentations.

When you view a scene in SL, you see the shapes and surface textures of the avatars that are located within your view. When this data is combined with a representation of terrain, including elevation and vegetation, structures and oceans, a composite scene can be rendered that places three-dimensional images of the avatars in a three-dimensional terrain context.

SL avatars are most often humanoid in form, some in animal or human-animal hybrid forms. and are often equipped with alien, gender-variant, and species-variant erotic organs.

One of the virtues of the use of artificially constructed forms for the avatars is the ability to give the avatars any shape, articulation, and surface texture desired, as well as the ability to animate parts of the avatar body or face, given sufficient scripts and code. At all times the avatar is under the control of a human being through a viewer that connects to the SL servers and provides local interfaces and image generation. Your avatar can walk, run, and fly around, observing an entire simulated patch of earth.

As the resident of the avatar, you have complete control over everything it says and does. You can hear what other people say or communicate by text. You can see the world from the avatar’s viewpoint, or from any other accessible place. You can hear ambient sounds in the simulated environment. The avatar is an extension of your self into the virtual world. As such, the acts of the avatar in dealing with the virtual world and its inhabitants are your acts for which you are ethically, if not legally, accountable, to another avatar and its resident (who can be physically located anywhere in the world).

In the relationship of the SL avatar to its resident we find a metaphor for the relationship of the human avatar to living truth. An avatar in SL can have default behaviors which cause them to be in a state of motion appropriate to each situation, e.g., still when seated and in a constant “dance” when standing. This level of behavior is akin to motor and reflex functions of a human body. The avatar performs a great range of simulated actions under the direction of its resident. The human body similarly performs actions in Real Life (RL) under the direction of higher mind functions. This division of mind levels in humans and avatars is conceptually similar, though the actual human mind content is a universe  greater than the most elaborate of all present day avatars.

A major theme of Transhumanist thought is the future emergence of Artificial Intelligences (AIs) that can simulate human thought faster and more accurately than a biological human. Any part of one’s mind that could be accurately modeled in an AI could, in principle, be immortalized by simulation in an artificial substrate. If this can be done, there would be no problem in endowing an SL avatar with the same human mind function.

We have no idea how far this idea might be carried because the first necessary steps to move beyond mechanical mind to minimal cognitive functionality by a machine are not yet well understood in humans. In the meantime, experimentation with AIs in VR interfaces like SL seems likely to help identify “low hanging fruit,” such as augmenting apparent avatar autonomy, while retaining a control link to the mind of the resident. The definition and implementation of such an interface would itself be a major accomplishment.

Coming up: What would it be like to live inside the world of SL?