AI Town: The Virtual Experiment That's More Than Just a Game

Jason Weiland
AI Town!Photo byJason Weiland

Welcome to the wacky world of AI Town, where the residents brush their teeth with great enthusiasm and engage in thrilling conversations about the weather! Okay, it might not sound like the most action-packed town, but buckle up folks, because these virtual villagers are on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence research.

Stanford and Google researchers have teamed up to create a virtual town filled with AI inhabitants, all in the pursuit of generating "believable simulacra of human behavior." And boy, did they nail it. The AIs engage in mundane tasks, like brushing their teeth (a very important routine!), and have heartwarming interactions with each other.

But hold on to your hats, because this virtual town is less like a real-life Sims game and more like an improv troupe role-playing on a MUD. Only the cool kids (millennials) will understand that reference.

These AI villagers aren't your average video game characters. They don't walk around or interact with their surroundings in the ways you might expect. Instead, they are visual representations of multiple instances of ChatGPT, engaging with each other through a complex and hidden text layer.

Each AI character, or "agent," is an instance of ChatGPT, given a backstory and prompted to play a role in this fictional town. Take John Lin, the friendly pharmacy shopkeeper who loves his family and enjoys helping people. Each agent is given a set of circumstances, like waking up in the morning, and asked to determine their next action.

While John might brush his teeth and head to the kitchen, another ChatGPT instance, playing the role of John's son Eddy, has its own set of actions. The agents don't actually share the same virtual space, but the experiment's framework makes it seem like they do by sharing information about their actions and location.

Imagine this heartwarming scene: John and Eddy, both in the kitchen, have a pleasant conversation about Eddy's music composition project. It's like a feel-good family sitcom, but powered by AI!

The experiment allows users to introduce new events and circumstances, like a broken faucet or a surprise party, and the agents respond accordingly. However, the process can be laborious, requiring constant prompting and reminders of relevant information.

As the AI agents interact and observe their surroundings, they develop a "memory" of important details, which helps them generate more believable actions and interactions. It's not quite the seamless generative agents the researchers hoped for, but it's a promising step toward creating them.

This virtual town experiment is far from a practical application in games and virtual environments, but its existence is groundbreaking. It shows that large language models like ChatGPT can imitate fictional characters and speculate on the humdrum details of daily life. And if AI can do this poorly now, it's only a matter of time before it masters the art of simulating human behavior.

So, grab some popcorn and settle in for the wholesome adventures of AI Town! These AI villagers may not be setting the virtual world on fire with their tooth-brushing and small talk, but they're paving the way for the future of AI-generated characters and interactions. And who knows – maybe one day, you'll be the proud mayor of your very own AI Town!

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