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Must write faster ...

I'm being a bit quiet around here right now because I'm busy trying to finish HALTING STATE before it all bloody comes true.

For example, according to The Register, IBM researchers have just moved into Linden Labs' Second Life in a big way, buying and moving in on a secret island headquarters ...

As with Second Life, participants create an online "avatar" to represent them. There is already a business psychology aspect emerging here, revolving around whether the avatar should be a close approximation of the individual's appearance (probably suitable for a "conservative" or "professional" business image) or some more adventurous expression of the participant's view of their personality (for the fart and flair brigade). Essentially, when a meeting is called, the participants' avatars appear in a Second Life, 25MByte, online container that appears on each of their PCs.

Communications can be by key-entry text or VoIP if that is appropriate. With text, all the contributions can be easily and fully minuted, and the probability is that speech-to-text systems will allow the same for speech-based interactions in the near future.

The IBM developers, led by Hursley-based Ian Hughes (who has the to-die-for job title of Metaverse Evangelist) are also making use of appropriate "gadgets" developed by other Second Life players. For example, one such gadget has been adapted to create a simple coffee table tool that creates a chair round it whenever a participant wishes to "sit down".

The team itself is contributing gadgets to Second Life, including a language translator system. This has been provided free to Second Life mentors and is available for sale on the system. It has also developed a portal to an external business system – in this case Amazon – which can then be used by all participants. This has already highlighted the need for one or more APIs that will be needed to allow customisable integration of the system with all relevant external business systems.

The advantage over phone or video conferencing systems is that participants feel they are much more "there" – for example, it is far easier to identify who is communicating what at any one time. It also adds the scope to move away from a formal meeting to relax or "play", or perhaps hold a breakout meeting, all of which can help creativity.

Meanwhile, I am left thinking the following thought-stream: IBM has a secret island headquarters hideaway inside a computer game. Truth stranger than fiction? Must write faster, the clowns are gaining ...




How long before they discover Emergent Sex?



Let's not go there, OK?


Wow ... And to think, The Matrix hypothesised the enforced imprisonment of the human race in a virtual environment.

Who'd'a thunk, five or six years ago, that people would actually just queue up to take residence in such a thing?




IBM has a secret island headquarters hideaway inside a computer game.

I think that's the kind of story that would almost be more credible if you went on to describe the shark filled pool and the attached submerged missile base.


You have to ask yourself after that bank robbery on Eve Online what the limits will be on corporate competitiveness. Will Microsoft, angered at IBM's support for open software, raid the secret IBM headquarters in Second Life using avatars imported from World of Warcraft? Or will they simply fly over it in an F-117 stealth bomber gadget, and drop a nuke gadget on it?


Maybe someone will write a script that logs text from nearby conversations and quietly drop it somewhere in their virtual island lair...

SL's ability to write scripts for objects that interact with webpages and webdatabases could create a whole new interesting form of spying...


Why would you bother dropping 'nukes' when you could revert them out of existence much more simply? Why not use a (potentially) spurious lawsuit to force a DMCA-analogue takedown, using the real-world legal system?


The problem with a lawsuit is finding a court which will admit jurisdiction. The advantage of 'nukes', or some other VWMD is that they take effect immediately, whereas even an emergency injunction can take weeks when used against a litigant with very deep pockets. And depending on their virtual radius of destruction, virtual weapons can take out the ability of the victim to act effectively in the virtual world.

Having said that, I have to admit I personally would be tempted to use much more surgical techniques, like sabotage of the target's operating scripts, or introduction of targeted object disassemblers.


IBM has a secret island headquarters hideaway inside a computer game.

You know, when I mentioned this game earlier, I was only kidding.


Wow, metaverse evangelist. Someone's read Snowcrash too many times at IBM :-)


Who'd'a thunk, five or six years ago, that people would actually just queue up to take residence in such a thing?

Oh, I was right there with it, given sufficient values of 'nifty'. Which didn't exist at the time, and was therefore very pie-in-the-sky. VMRL was supposed to supply a lot of this, but that was a technology years before its time. The archetype of the old Cyberpunk 'decker' could be argued to be a precursor to this sort of 'beam me in, Scotty,' thing.


Even scarier than emergent sex - what Emergent Religion?
God gadgets. Or a bit more subtle - something that detects (perhaps from a personality profile, or a history of your actions) your likely religious/political leanings, and takes appropriate action. Yuck - Targeted Religious Advertising gadgets. I'd rather have a nuke dropped on me.

PS. You can substitute the word "Political" for religious, and achieve an even scarier scenario.


There was some talk about using MUDs (the text-only precursor to SL and the like) as virtual meeting rooms, over a decade ago. And there was, for a while, an attempt at a fannish meeting place using such tech, on a now-defunct MUD.

It seemed to struggle with player-identity issues. Some of the fannish types didn't like the avatar spproach that MUD-like environments encourage. If you were there as [deleted] instead of Charlie_Stross or Dave_Bell, they didn't want to know.

For a corporate operation, you can expect rules to cover such, and somebody such as Elaine, however much she might be able to kick ass in her Game Persona, probably wouldn't want to walk around the virtual office with a sword on her hip.

On the other hand, the Halting State scenario does rather depend on the sort of security hole which might lead to the Company wanting to encourage staff to carry swords in VR. And I find myself thinking of concepts from games such as Cyberpunk and Shadowrun.

(Do you remember Bird of Prey, Charlie? I don't think a sequel was envisaged, but they went ahead and made one.)


Hmm . . . this post has got me thinking seriously about whether there's any mileage (or lack of mileage . . . sorry) in asking a research council to fund a history research seminar in Second Life. The 'turning up with a sword' problem would be dealt with by the usual peer pressure. We could even charge registration fees in Linden dollars. We'd need a powerpoint app, and our own island, with virtual coffee, virtual bookstands, and virtual breakout rooms.

At first look it seems that the hardware requirements are a mite high, and it needs to include really good many-to-many voice communication. But watch this space.


Chris, while there are security issues, there are MUD-like servers that can run on Windows. Have a Google for Fuzzball, for instance. That also has the usual Linux/Unix versions. Earlier versions of that software were running large text-MUDs ten years ago.

This seems a long way from what you want, but the software is free, and you could set up a proof-of-concept meeting.

Hmm, seems I do have a Second Life account. I shall have to have another look. I fiddle around with 3D modelling, and I shall have to check things out. Somebody on Renderosity was saying SL users were using some of the software I have.

One thing to think about: the actual conversation. With text-mode, things get said in blocks. If those blocks get too big, it's awkward for the audience. They have to use scroll-back in their client's text window. I don't know how SL handles this, but there's a different etiquette that emerges. It's possible to set up a series of prepared texts, and "say" them quickly enough to annoy people.


So in your virtual meeting, within your virtual island inside the virtual world. Does your virtual presenter use a virtual PowerPoint presentation?

I sense a tremor in the Winternet, as if a thousand innocent proxy servers suddenly cried out and then went silent.

It raises interesting questions over who would be laible for virtual corporate 'illegailty'. Say HP sneak a Second Life special ops trooper across to the island, and he picks up some juicy info.

Who broke the laws? The HP guy for doing it, Second Life for not stopping him!?

Oh man - the future's going to be 'phun'*

*Please note - I do not insisit on speaking 'leet' in general, please do not hunt me down and kill me.


I mentioned the Fuzzball MUCK server...

Some of the places that use it (where the sex is not so much emergent as viagrafied) have had whole chunks of code ripped out to prevent snooping. There are all sorts of simple ways, in the default installation, to snoop on people. And these methods are side effects of other features.

For instance, an object can be designated as a vehicle, which means that people can sit inside it, unseen, watching the room it's in.

The problem is that it isn't immediately obvious that the vehicle code has this side effect. And vecause there are sometimes several different ways of doing the same thing, it gets difficult to stop snooping without wrecking other useful stuff. Current FB servers have two distinct programming languages avalable to players, one a version of Forth, the other a sort of scripting language called MPI.

Making that environment secure enough for a business meeting is going to be difficult. It's rather like the difference between Eve Online and Halting State: who do you trust to run the bank?

Something else to think about: how secure is the server-client communication?

I think you'd have to design the security in from the ground up.

Which is probably why high-tech corporate meetings don't use this approach. They know just enough to recognise the dangers of virtual space, running on all those mobile phones, but they forget that somebody who has a VR game available on their mobile phone is giving somebody access to a microphone.


Anyone working in this virtual environment, do they get paid in money that can be used in the real world where they eat, sleep and fuck or only in their virtual world?


Dave, yes -- I remember Bird of Prey and the [IMO somewhat inferior, except for the key premise it depended on] sequel.


Oh, no, PowerPoint invades the virtual universe! Just remember what Edward Tufte, the doyen of presentation gurus, said: "Power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely."

It does beg the question of whether meetings in virtual worlds would be any different or more effective than meatings (sic).


This post prompted me to check out Second Life. I made my avatar (bald, purple), entered the world, and flew around looking at houses. Is that all there is? Do you have to know people in the game to engage in virtual display (lookit my kewl clothes and house) and virtual sociability?

I'd rather play Yohoho Puzzle Pirates. Yarrrr!


Knowing people, and knowing when you can meet them, does seem to be a big part of it. One place I hang out has had some people hanging out there for ten years. And every once in a while, somebody new turns up. All of these games have places where people do congregate.

But I don't cope well with the graphical environments.


This virtual world stuff could be really useful in company meetings - program your avatar to nod sagely and say things like "Great idea boss, I really love it!" every now and then and you can blow off the meetings and spend your time playing Solitare, setting up that Second Life real estate scam, or even working! And you'd probably get promoted...


"Hi, I'm Eliza and I'm the HR rep at this meeting."


Rather than paying attention in the meetings, you could play hooky to Third Life. Oooh, it's all a bit Feersum Enjinn, innit?


Perhaps the definition of when we have reached this Singularity thing everyone is talking about is that SF writers are no longer able to stay ahead of real technological change.


Is there anyone interested in trying a game environment? I reckon this would need some people to agree a time to log-on, whether at Second Life or somewhere else.

I'm in the UK, local time currently 1 hour ahead of UTC, and it's barely practical for me to sync with US-evenings. On the other hand, US West-coasters at their 11pm are at my 7am.


Perhaps the definition of when we have reached this Singularity thing everyone is talking about is that SF writers are no longer able to stay ahead of real technological change.

Posted by: Brian Reilly | September 23, 2006 2:50 PM

I recall Carl Hiaasen saying a few years ago that his real challenge was "staying ahead of the curve of weirdness in Florida". Which would suggest that the 2000 US presidential election may have been the Wanker Singularity.


Dave: "The company that raids together, stays together."

I'm reminded of the old stories about executives who met in Everquest, because (thanks to the intended limitations of the program) that was the only place where they were accessable. Since so many people are spending time online, and the rampant success of World of Warcraft (and other MMORPGs, but principally WoW) shows that many are interested in using large-scale virtual environments as a way of spending free time, it does suggest that we may end up living in some variation of Gibson's old universe after all.

(It certainly puts the dire warnings about Warcraft "addiction" in a new light.)

In any case, Second Life is not terribly popular compared to the more guided and "gamelike" programs. It makes sense; people expect a game, and Second Life has never really struck me as anything of the sort. I hadn't expected that to change, but this story does suggest that it might find new life, and that's welcome. I doubt that Second Life will serve as the seed of a Metaverse, but it's looking like something akin to it will.


"The costs of the identity cards scheme could be cut "quite substantially" by making more use of existing government databases, a minister has said." - Sounds familiar.



Didn't Charlie predict something like this- mashing together all the existing databases with all their flaws, into one big database with magnified flaws?



But it's not technological extrapolation -- it's managerial.

All you have to know is (a) all government IT projects run over-budget and come in late, and the more ambitious they are the worse it is, (b) politicians need to announce success in any project they initiated before they face re-election in order to benefit from the project; and (c) if (a) and (b) are true, and there exists a short-cut, then the short-cut will be taken (even if it means compromising on the original goal).

See, if you put right-angle bends in your shiny new TGV line, you will get train-wrecks!


Almost totally off-topic ...
Did you (Charles Stross) get my e-mail of
16.35: 20/09/06 ??
Re. computing/reality developments ( headed "Ping!" )


Yes. Busy right now -- got a book to finish -- but should be clear in a couple of weeks.


Go for it...the world needs more Strossian stuff!


Good - thank-you for taking the (precious) time.

Completely relevant is the (now found) reference to the Scientific American article on the "Limits of Reason" - April SciAm.P54-61 by Gregory Chaitin. Their web-site should be able to find a copy.
There is/are direct references to the solubility or otherwise of the Turing Halting problem.



First: there is I believe a PS to the register article. Many of the gadgets they credited to IBM were actually created by other residents.

Second: Someone from GSFWC mentioned this post to me at the weekend... a few of the GSFWC crowd have been playing in Second Life for a while now.

I've given one talk there using typed chat - having a meeting with typed chat is really frustrating. It takes about an hour to have a five minute conversation.
I also helped arrange a meeting where the most of the audience were in the one room, but the speaker was at home giving the talk via Second Life with Ventrillo. That was much more fun.

On the other hand, voice chat apparently is on the way - and it is always possible to use something like skype or ventrillo. If its a single speaker, then they can also have their chat streamed over shoutcast.

A good SL blog is this one: http://nwn.blogs.com/

And demonsthenes is right: Second Life is not a game. Thats why I like it :D