In Kuato’s Game World, Knowledge is Power, and the AIs are Friendly

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skills learned at earlier stations. Along the way, Alice is gradually building up a profile of the player.

“It is going to remember what you asked it, and take you through that in a better way the next time,” Meehan says. “It will know what you do or don’t like and what aptitude you have. And what we would really like to do is have some cross-learning: if they show an aptitude for something in science, we would like to give them challenges related to that.”

Later in the game, there’s a big twist: in order to leave the ship and make the outside world habitable, the player has to start terraforming and populating the planet using a holodeck-style technology. (I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but apparently this is where the genetics comes in too.)

“It’s like The Matrix—everything is made of code,” Meehan says. “This little butterfly might be okay, but this one here has something wrong with it, and you have to keep it fixed. You can change its wings and its legs, but only once you’ve gotten through a number of levels of JavaScript.”

The whole idea of the Robinson Crusoe-esque narrative is to keep kids interested and motivated as they cruise through the coding lessons, Meehan says. In the final levels, they’ll be able to build their own alien monsters and show them off to their friends. “Knowledge is power, and the more knowledge you have, the better you are going to survive in this world,” Meehan says. “It’s an analogy that kids respond to pretty well, particularly in this age group.”

A jungle scene from the virtual world outside the ship

Meehan acknowledges that players might not come out of the game as JavaScript wizards, but at least they’ll have a foundation for further study. “We are just hoping to get them over the hump—the initial difficulty of getting some skills into them,” he says. “That’s when we can pass them off to Codecademy or Treehouse. And that should be very interesting to Codecademy, because they’ll have all this data on what the students do well and don’t do well.”

Meehan says Kuato’s games will come with a sub-$10 price tag, and that the company will also earn money through in-game purchases of extra skills modules. But it won’t be like virtual good sales in swords-and-sorcery games, he says. “You’ve got to earn your weapons through knowledge.”

Horizons Ventures, where Meehan still spends about 20 percent of his time, is betting the field when it comes to SRI’s AI and natural language understanding technologies. Aside from its investments in Siri (“a good exit for us,” in Meehan’s words) and Trapit and Kuato, Horizons has also put money into Desti, a stealth-mode SRI spinoff using VPA technology in the travel area, and Tempo AI, which is focused on mobile productivity.

“We really like this space,” Meehan says. “This next generation [of VPA technology] is all about grammar and context and intent management.” And while that has interesting applications in education, Kuato’s core push is “the ability to have more intelligent personal assistant technology driving companions and characters in games” generally, Meehan says—and who knows where that could lead.

In case you were wondering, Meehan says the name Kuato is a deliberate reference to the Martian resistance leader in the 1990 film Total Recall. In that movie, Kuato was an infant-sized conjoined twin growing hideously out of the torso of his host. (In the remake hitting theaters this Friday, the character is played by a freestanding Bill Nighy.) “We like the fact that anytime anyone Googles us, that’s the first image that comes up,” Meehan says. “That’s quite fun.” For 11- to 15-year olds, at least.

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • I would like to try this game. Looks very interesting. Hmmm…