Fake Smarts Ain’t So Dumb

I’ve been researching what I like to refer to as the “Frankenstein Factor,” which is one of the defining features of science fiction – essentially “play god and be smited” as per the fate of Dr. Frankenstein who gave a creature life which lead to his death. Anyway, my research eventually brought me to various observations of artificial intelligence (the Digital Age form of the Frankenstein monster), including this chestnut from the “Lord of Rings” archives. Apparently, Massive, the special effects program designed to facilitate the cast-of-thousands battle scenes in the trilogy really put the “special” in special effects. As science and culture writer Clive Thompson recounted on his blog “the program worked by creating each orc as an independent agent, driven by a few simple goals: Kill enemies while trying to stay alive and avoiding overly-congested areas of the battlefield. When you combine thousands of these agents together, they create a highly realistic sense of the army being ‘alive’ – teeming with ripples of emergent behavior that could never be predicted or hand-coded.”

According to Thompson’s report, Richard Taylor, the film’s special effects head, explained to the Montreal Gazette that a particular behavior arose that his team hadn’t expected. Initially, instead of fighting, the orcs ran away.

“For the first two years, the biggest problem we had was soldiers fleeing the field of battle,” Taylor said. “We could not make their computers stupid enough to not run away.”

Call it cowardice, but I think given the odds of surviving on the “Lord of the Rings” battlefield, the digital orc’s intelligence may be more than merely artificial.

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