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

Your spaceship has crash-landed on an alien world. You are apparently the last survivor. The ship’s electrical and life-support systems are failing, the atmosphere outside is poisonous, and hostile life forms are intruding. To stay alive, you’re going to have to fix some things, and that’s going to require some computer skills. Fortunately, “Alice” is there to help. She’s the ship’s computer, and she can show you what you need to know to hack the ship’s other systems.

The scenario is fictional—it’s the setting for an educational video game about coding, in the works at Kuato Studios, a London- and San Francisco-based startup. But Alice, interestingly, is real (though her name might change soon). She’s a virtual personal assistant (VPA), baked into Kuato’s game using artificial intelligence technology licensed from SRI International in Menlo Park, CA.

Alice is a kind of omnipresent helper, available to answer players’ questions, or at least guide them to the places where they can find the answers. The game is designed specifically to give 11- to 15-year-olds an introduction to XML, JavaScript, and other languages, but it’s envisioned as just the first in a series of educational and adventure games starring characters driven by SRI’s VPA technology. Founder and CEO Frank Meehan tells me that the company, which is bankrolled by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing, aims to release the iPad-based game by the end of this year. (It doesn’t have a title yet; we presume it won’t be Go Ask Alice.)

In a meeting last week, Meehan walked me through some early sequences from the game, as well as the philosophy behind the project, which he says is all about demystifying computer programming and “making a game for learning that’s also fun.” An admirable goal—but the most captivating thing about the project, to me, is Alice, the placeholder name for the VPA that keeps the game moving.

Fixing a butterfly: In this coding minigame, players must rewrite XML tags to fix a glitch in the code for a virtual insect.

Alice comes from same line of personal assistants as Siri, the question-answering system built into Apple’s iPhone 4S. I’ve written extensively about Siri and about the other members of this family, including TrapIt, a Web- and iPad-based personalized news search engine, and Lola, a banking assistant co-developed by SRI and Spanish bank BBVA. But the way Meehan explains it, Alice is different from her siblings in at least two ways. For one thing, she’s the first application of SRI’s research to turn up in a game (Kuato has an exclusive license to use SRI’s technology in the areas of education and video games). And crucially, she’s able to learn about the humans she’s helping.

That’s a small change that makes a big difference. The first generation of VPA tools built at SRI were “very much around intent recognition and linking into a search engine,” says Meehan, who is also a partner at Li’s venture firm, Horizons Ventures. “But all of these areas in terms of deeper knowledge [of the user] weren’t done. I can ask Siri what is the weather in San Francisco, and then press Siri again, and it has no recollection of what we were just talking about.”

Alice is a more attentive helper, according to Meehan. She remembers where players are in the game, what they’ve learned, and where they’ve run into problems. “We are focusing much more on learning and personalization,” he says. “We are very interested in the humanization of software.”

In that sense, Alice represent a small step toward the realization of human-like AIs from science fiction, such as the character Continuity in William Gibson’s 1988 novel Mona Lisa Overdrive, or the interactive book at the center of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. But Meehan says Alice was also inspired by some 1990s technology: the “Visions” feature in several of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda games, which consisted of short video segments designed to help lost players get unstuck.

Meehan says he’s been watching SRI’s VPA technology evolve ever since leading Horizons’ investments in Siri and Trapit. “I have had a very big interest in education and gaming for quite some time,” he says. “I started the company in early January to look at how we could utilize this new generation of VPA technology in that field.”

To build Kuato’s first game, Meehan says he recruited game designers from top studios like Rockstar Games, Sony Computer Entertainment, EA, Konami, and Ideaworks. The company also has “an awesome education team,” he says, but the game designers are taking the lead. That’s because most previous educational games have been “made by education teams and, by their nature, were very worthy but pretty dull,” Meehan says. “It’s just the wrong people, in terms of getting kids excited.”

Next the company had to identify a topic area. It settled on something well outside the usual classroom subjects: programming, and in later levels of the game, graphic design, animation, and even a little evolutionary genetics.

A "Learn More" screen about XML from Kuato's game

“These are skills they are not getting in school,” Meehan says. “It’s very clear from our research that kids want to learn how to build games and code and make movies, because they know those are the skills of the future.” Aside from appealing to tweens and teens, that choice also allows Kuato to go outside the traditional marketplaces for educational software, Meehan says. “We are not selling to schools—we’re going straight to the kids and their parents.”

Kuato’s engineers started coding in earnest about 11 weeks ago. What they’ve built so far looks a lot more like something out of the console games Halo or Dead Space than a typical educational game. “We don’t want it to feel like homework in any way,” Meehan emphasizes.

As the game begins, the ship has just crashed, the lights are off, and the oxygen is running out. The player’s first task is to steer the main character to an environmental station, hack into the computer, and fix the recharging station that runs the lights. This involves a minigame in which the player must modify some actual XML code by changing a value from “false” to “true.”

“It might be a little too advanced, but we will be throwing stuff at them pretty quickly,” Meehan says. “We don’t have any multiple choice or quizzes. They just have to do things. It’s kind of like The Hunger Games—in order to survive, they have to learn.”

But players aren’t totally on their own. This is where Alice comes in. At any point, players can consult the VPA, which, like Siri, has a speech-based interface. Using his iPad, Meehan steered the player-character to the recharging station and demonstrated for me.

Meehan: “Can you help me?”

Alice: “It appears that you need to recharge. But first you need to repair the charging station.”

Meehan: “How do I do that?”

Alice: “You must change the value inside the XML from ‘false’ to ‘true.’”

Meehan: “What is XML?”

Alice: “XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language….I found some information for you…” [At this point, just as Siri would, Alice brought up a live Wikipedia entry on XML.]

To fix the ship and repel the aliens, the player must proceed to a series of stations, where each task builds on 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.

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…