- Game pioneer Jon Radoff spoke at the MIT Media Lab about how far we’ve extended ourselves into the digital realm over the last two decades, and how we’re on the cusp of an era that will see a fundamental change to civilization itself.
- In his talk, Radoff explains his vision for putting this creative power in the hands of everyone, and not siloing it off behind a handful of centralized gatekeepers.
- AI and the search for creativity is about how things we often call “creative” are really searches for solutions, says Radoff, who details how emergent AI technologies such as autonomous agents will impact this.
We’re on the cusp of an era that will be a fundamental change to civilization itself, according to game pioneer and entrepreneur Jon Radoff.
It will be a battle for digital identity and self-expression.
“The next battleground on the internet will be between centralized AI services, and decentralized AI you could run on your own device,” he said during a presentation to the MIT Media Lab.
Radoff explained that to date our digital identities have been expressed through online game personas, social media and avatars. This has evolved toward expressing ourselves creatively such as through virtual worlds and platforms like Minecraft and Roblox.
The third era — which we are at the very beginning of, he thinks — is about empowerment through artificial intelligence, where autonomous AI agents carry out our will. But there are obvious dangers over loss of control that lie ahead.
Radoff began his presentation by asking that we should view games as the proto-metaverses.
“Games are abstractions of reality,” he says. “They have elements of storytelling, there’s some kind of shared imaginary space that has to take place to play a game.”
While most games are constrained by rules, some are not, and this potential is what excites Radoff. He identifies role playing game Dungeons & Dragons as the first to combine rules with the freedom of its players to create their own stories to expand the scope of the game.
“It is a shared imaginative space, shared place for creativity, a place you get to take on different roles. And there’s enormous emergent play. It’s emergent because you can’t fully predict the outcome.”
The metaverse takes this concept of emergence into digital form and allows participants “to cross time and spatial barriers,” Radoff says. “The metaverse give us a place where we can go through similar imaginative experiences without having to necessarily meet in person.”
Online multi-player games like World of Warcraft or world-building platforms like Roblox and Minecraft are inherently social, Radoff argues. It is the social connections that players are forming here that gives us clues as to how the metaverse will grow.
Just as the number of social interactions are essentially infinite so the emergent nature of these virtual worlds is infinite and infinitely unpredictable by design. It is something not possible with the closed HTML-based websites of the 2D internet but the seeds of how we will navigate its 3D successor are already here.
And this has individual digital identities at its core.
“Most people are participating in online games, or in social media, maybe you’re an eSports, maybe you’ve done online dating, maybe you’ve participated as a viewer, or even [participated in] live streaming. Maybe you’ve done some cryptocurrency. Maybe like me, you’re capturing your biometrics 24 hours a day and uploading it to the internet, where AI figures out how to tell me how to live a better life,” Radoff explains.
“The key idea is that our identities are now very much comprised not only of who we are physically, but who we are digitally. And that’s changing a lot of the trajectory of human civilization.”
If the current phase of our online ID is a presence on Twitter or Facebook, then the next step is our expression. It’s about what we put out online as digital beings.
Again, the first steps of this journey are already being taken in the form of digital twins. Radoff notes that just as we’re projecting our personas into digital space, we’re starting to take physical things with us into the digital space too.
“We’re going to have more and more digital twins of objects in the real world that you can scale up [online]. If you can do it in a factory, you could do an entire city. Why stop at a Smart City, when you can do a twin Earth?”
As we digitize more of the physical world replete, so the virtual world will impact the real world in what Radoff imagines will be a virtuous feedback loop.
“The idea of shaping worlds and exposing ourselves to them and allowing us to shape experiences that then affect us as well, such as creating an avatar online wearing it in real life. We’re starting to blur the distinction of like who we are with our digital personas online.”
But there’s yet another phase and it involves AI. Generative AI will amplify the whole virtual/real crossover and multiply the speed at which it is built. The question then becomes can we as individual humans retain agency over our own identities? Radoff thinks we can.
His solution lies in providing a framework for humans to retain agency — the power — to change and control AI. In this respect Radoff seems to agree with Web3 advocates who envision the next generation of the internet as the last chance for society to build a more equitable distribution of labor and reward.
“When I talk about projecting our will onto the online world through intelligent agents, I’m also thinking about our own agency about interpreting the online world. Right now, in the centralized version of the world [aka Web2], it’s really governed by algorithms whose objective function is revenue and EBITA for an organization. It’s totally fine. I’m a capitalist, so I get it. But I personally want to live in a world where it’s my online experience that is optimized around the objective function that I set,” he says.
“For instance, if my intelligent agent wants to let me know that it discovered a product or service that I ought to consider paying for, because it’s looked at all the information available, and its pattern match that based on my criteria to what I want.”
While not necessarily convinced of current iterations of blockchain or Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs), he does think these are examples of ways to create new governance systems that work for everybody.
“We could debate the pros and cons of whether that makes sense in all or in particular cases but nevertheless, DAOs are a social system, an emergent social structure, which I think is interesting to look at. So it’s interesting to think about what happens with the agents that represent us online? And then how do we form governments around that?”
Such theorizing becomes urgent when you consider the amount of deepfake content circulating online with few guardrails in place for people to detect fiction.
An article in Wired by Thor Benson titled ”This Disinformation Is Just for You” worries that generative AI won’t just flood the internet with more lies — it may also create convincing disinformation that’s targeted at groups or even individuals.
Hany Farid, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Benson this kind of customized disinformation is going to be “everywhere.” Though bad actors will probably target people by groups when waging a large-scale disinformation campaign, they could also use generative AI to target individuals.
“You could say something like, ‘Here’s a bunch of tweets from this user. Please write me something that will be engaging to them.’ That’ll get automated. I think that’s probably coming,” Farid says.
In the lead-up to the 2024 US election, Facebook’s algorithm — itself a form of AI — will likely be recommending some AI-generated posts instead of only pushing content created entirely by human actors. We’ve reached the point where AI will be used to create disinformation that another AI then recommends to you.
“We’ve been pretty well tricked by very low-quality content,” Kate Starbird, associate professor in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington tells Benson. “We are entering a period where we’re going to get higher-quality disinformation and propaganda. It’s going to be much easier to produce content that’s tailored for specific audiences than it ever was before. I think we’re just going to have to be aware that that’s here now.”
While recognizing the dangers inherent in unrestrained AI, Radoff is concerned that rampant regulation might stifle innovation.
“There are, of course, real safety issues that are of concern but I also don’t want to throw out the potential for all of society, including civilizational improvement effects, that will be a huge net benefit to us.”
He continues, “We already have a deep fake problem… We’ll have to have first defensive technologies. This knowing the authenticity of content and who it came from, is going to be very important.
“The fear [about AI] is real and palpable, and it will drive politicians towards reacting to that potentially in a way that isn’t productive for innovation, and may even be a net worsening of safety. The rush to regulation worries me a lot.”