Building a virtual person

The Mind Project (formerly the PT-Project) is committed to building 'artificial persons' for their educational value. In 1995-96, student-researchers built our first artificial person -- a robot named, 'Iris'. We soon realized that the artificial intelligence software that controls Iris's robotic devices could also be used to control a 'virtual person' that inhabits a virtual environment. 'Cyd' is the Mind Project's first virtual person. In this first phase of the Virtual Person Project, both Cyd's 'body' and the 'world' that Cyd inhabits are created with computer animation, in much the same way that a video game is created. While Cyd presently inhabits a very limited 'world', over time animation students will create an increasingly elaborate environment. In phase two of the project, Cyd will be designed to inhabit an environment that is more truly 'virtual' -- a VRML environment for example. For detailed information on how Cyd's 'body' and 'world' were created, for pictures and video files of Cyd and for details on our plans for the future link to: Building Cyd's 'Body').

When we speak of Cyd's 'mind' we mean the computer software that that enables Cyd to perform actions that are at least superficially like the actions that humans perform when they use their cognitive abilities to speak a language, remember, make decisions, draw logical inferences and make moral judgments (to name a few). Of coure, it is a deep philosophical question whether it is possible for any computer program to genuinely 'understand' a language, make moral judgments, and the like. The PT-Project does not pretend to offer a definitive answer to these questions, but we do have an entire section on our website dedicated to an exploration of these issues: Is it Possible to Build a Person? The main reason that we try to build an 'artificial' person is that in the effort we learn a good deal about ourselves and our own minds (not to mention what we learn about computer programming, animation, moral reasoning, etc.).

There are several computer programs that together constitute Cyd's 'mind'. Most of Cyd's 'cognitive' abilities derive from the AI program for which the Mind Project used to be named: ProtoThinker (or 'PT' for short), written by John Barker at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (one of our partners in the Mind Project). In addition to PT, there are many other programs necessary for the construction of Virtual Cyd. There is a text-to-speech program that gives Cyd a 'voice', a video player that plays .avi files, a program that determines which avi files are to be played when and there are special AI programs written by our student-researchers to give Cyd expanded capabilities (e.g. a TicTacToe learning program). But all of these components do not a 'person' make. There must ultimately be a 'central control center' that organizes the various parts, that functions something like a central nervous system. Writing this program was the most challenging aspect of the project. To learn how our undergraduate researchers accomplished this feat, link to Virtual Cyd's 'Mind'.