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Thought Leaders: John Laird

By Stu Horvath

Innovation takes many forms within the gaming space, often beginning with insight and inspiration from a single person, be they a game developer, an engineer, a sociologist or anything else within the industry. That’s why we’re tracking down these thought leaders: to give you a sneak peek of the digital arts future through their eyes.

In this installment, we talk to John Laird, a computer science professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in artificial intelligence research. He is also noted for developing HAUNT, one of the first text adventure games. Laird discusses the future impact of AI in the tech world.

DIG: Can you tell us about your history with video games?

John Laird:
Unfortunately, the game industry didn’t really get a good start until I was in graduate school. In the mid-1990s, I started teaching a class in computer game design and development (second in the country I think). I also started to do research using games as an application for artificial intelligence research.

To learn more about the game industry, I visited over 15 game companies to find out what was going on in terms of AI and games. I learned a lot, including that it would be very hard to fund research at a university in AI and games. Michael Mateas of University of California, Santa Cruz, and Michael Young of North Carolina State University have been able to do it, but I don’t think I could have.

DIG: How do you see the games industry developing in the short term and in the long term?

J.L.: I think we will continue to see a great expansion in the breadth of games, including continued growth in causal games and cell phone games, but also into new types of interactive digital entertainment. I think AI will be important for new gaming experiences by providing challenging enemies, but also through dynamic adjustment of games so that they are better customized to the player.

DIG: How do you see AI developing in the future?

J.L.: I think it is very difficult to project the future of AI; it is dependent on many different forces. For example, we now have AI in cell phones (Siri), which comes out of a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) project to make better office assistants. As another example, I would never have guessed IBM would invest so much money into Watson, and now they are trying to use it for medical records.

My own guess is that AI will continue to spread out into many everyday commercial products (cars, Internet sites, medical assistance). The Nest thermostat is an excellent example. It will just be ubiquitous. I think the idea of autonomous robots (A.I. Artificial Intelligence; I, Robot; The Terminator) is a distraction from where much of AI will really end up.

Of course, I’m working on autonomous AI systems. Oh, well. …

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