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Games: Raising Cyberbaby

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Artificial intelligence is an inherently scary concept. But it's just got closer in the shape of Cyberlife's surprisingly charming and innocent game, Creatures 2. Cyberlife's project works by building a game world from the genes, the chemicals and the ecosystem up. So when there's rain falling in the background, it's not because the game has "rain now" pre-programmed at that point, it's that there's been a pressure drop somewhere in the independently-operating ecological system. Cyberlife's Creatures - Creatures 2 is the proud next generation - was a revelation when it came out in 1996. The heck with shoot 'em ups, beat 'em ups and the rest, this was the first grow 'em up. But now, with the impending release of the sequel, artificial life just got more lifelike.

Insert the CD-Rom and you find a game world, virgin and practically empty of life - take the supplied diskette with six examples of digital DNA, and hatch your creature. The result is an adorable, big-eyed baby (a Norn), with its own personality. If he (or she) is clever enough, reward him with a tickle - but too much affection may leave him weak. If he's too inquisitive, smack him, but not too much or he may become introverted. It's a big responsibility, but don't underestimate how attached you'll become to the little critter, helping him learn new words and teaching him about the (digital) birds and the bees. Like life, then. Or at least like Tamagotchi for adults - with the crucial difference that Norns have the ability to learn. The Norns have 800 "genes" to choose from, and the computer code even simulates internal organs. The sex organs are only active from adolescence onwards - don't worry, they're not visible.

Toby Simpson is the creative director of Creatures products at Cyberlife. He doesn't look like a Norn exactly, but has their wide-eyed curiosity. He also believes that the technology he's working on has a variety of uses beyond games. "We could use this artificial intelligence to model how people will behave in different situations." Months of market research, he claims, "can be replaced in minutes once we've generated the situation effectively". Theoretically, you could imitate military scenarios with unmanned craft programmed with artificial DNA. Work on the principle of survival of the fittest: the ones that didn't get destroyed in battle have the most survival-oriented genes and you could breed from these. Are you scared now?