If you could play god to an emerging artificial intelligence, would you? Or better: Should you?
That’s the moral dilemma at the heart of Agence, an interactive “dynamic film” that blends virtual reality, gaming, and cinematic storytelling to let audiences influence a handful of evolving, three-legged AI creatures, known as agents. The project, which recently debuted at the Venice International Film Festival, is a co-production between Toronto-based indie studio Transitional Forms and the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada. Think of it as Tamagotchi for the 2020s, but with real consequences on the development of digital life.
“I think the core artistic vision of this is to cause people to question humans’ role in artificial intelligence,” says Pietro Gagliano, creator of Agence and founder of Transitional Forms, “both in its creation and interaction right now. These are virtually living creatures that are learning. They’re learning from us and we’re teaching them. This is a moment that I hope that we look back on in time as, you know, we made the right choices. And we decided to empathize with these creatures that didn’t ask to be born.”
Empathy is a key element of what makes Agence so impactful to the viewer, and why many will find themselves returning to its infinite world: It’s one thing to hold a plastic keychain in your hand with a screen depicting a digital creature you need to nourish and care for, and quite another to be present in their world where they can observe, interact, and learn from you.
“I love VR because it puts you in the same liminal space as the AI agents. We can actually develop relationships. Agence does that in a very basic way. I imagine VR being very important for studying and developing AI in the future because you can actually share the same space as these creatures, as these beings,” says Gagliano.
“These are virtually living creatures that are learning. They’re learning from us and we’re teaching them.”
At the start of every “visit” to Agence, as Gagliano calls each experience, the viewer is greeted by a vast realm of planets, but is then quickly transported as an omnipresent entity to a planet inhabited by five agents. There is no gameplay goal here; there are no skills to level up or points to gain. You can either observe the agents as they coo in their baby-voiced computer gibberish or you can interfere in their world as an agent of change, picking them up to calm them and break up fights, or casting them off into the void below as punishment. All of which impacts their development.
“Agence is a simple story, but I think it’s a powerful one,” says David Oppenheim, the NFB creative producer who helped co-develop the project alongside Gagliano. “This social dilemma of introducing an object of desire into their world where you can cause chaos or you can help to create balance.”
That object of desire is what I’ve come to call a “hypnoflower,” but which the team internally refers to as a MacGuffin because of how it advances the story. Once planted by the viewer, this flower has the potential to entrance and visibly intoxicate the curious agents, ultimately leading to their potential doom or survival. And that ending has everything to do with how you, the viewer, meddles. You can either let the curious agents discover and “consume” the dangerous flower, which then grows and upsets the gravity of the world, or you can somehow save them from it. This is in addition to managing the limited emotions and quirky habits of the agents, some of which can be quite aggressive and kick one another.
“These creatures that are in the film…they’re probably not even as smart as insects,” Gagliano says. “But they’ll evolve over time with our work and hopefully the work of future collaborators, if people are into this idea.”
The agents Gagliano’s referring to fall under the category of reinforcement learning AI and thus have “brains” (unlike Tamagotchi which “grow” based a pre-determined set of user inputs), though game AI is also present within Agence to help move the story forward. It’s these reinforcement learning agents, in particular, which will be shaped over time by millions of visits (that’s no exaggeration — my last visit indicated that nearly 2.5 million agents had “died in the making of this film”), and the eventual training of a community of outside engineers and enthusiasts using machine learning tools like Google’s open-source TensorFlow and Unity’s ML-Agents.
To accomplish this lofty goal, Gagliano and Oppenheim intend to release an open-source tool kit post-launch.
“We will make that available to a small subset of engineers,” explains Oppenheim. “We’re working with some of the leading minds in reinforcement learning right now. That’ll allow people to train agents and review their brains. And for those brains to go back into the film. You could decide to train an agent, for example, where they’re rewarded for every collision they have with another agent; Their characteristic or their personality will be one of aggression. They’re trained with millions and millions of steps…millions of iterations.”
“These creatures that are in the film […] they’ll evolve over time with our work and hopefully the work of future collaborators, if people are into this idea.”
Upon entering Agence’s world, viewers will initially be presented with a mix of four gaming AI and one reinforcement learning AI, though this is customizable via a menu option that allows you to assign brains to all or some of the agents.
“Because they’re pretty dumb, we just keep it to one [agent], but the user can go in and turn on more. There’s a little info button to say who trained the brain that you’re watching. So if we have collaborators, we can credit them there,” says Gagliano.
But opening up Agence’s toolkit to the engineering public is just one way Gagliano and Oppenheim intend for their little agents to grow. The pair also plan to create and foster a community through a dedicated channel on Twitch, the Amazon-owned live streaming platform, and a regular schedule of programming. Essentially, this would be like a window into a digital zoo of sorts, granting curious onlookers the ability to observe these AI creatures as they progress through their training, and chat with the development team.
“I think it has the potential to become this crowdsourced evolving film,” admits Oppenheim.
Indeed, the continued evolution of these endearing AI agents rests heavily on the community reaction to Agence, and it’s for that reason Gagliano and Oppenheim have opened the gates wide and considerably lowered the cost barrier to entry. Agence releases today on Steam, Oculus Store, and Viveport for $2.99. And though it hinges on VR as an empathic key, a headset is not required to visit. Agence will also be available as a 2D PC experience through Steam, in addition to a $1.99 mobile version for iOS and Android, so most everyone can have a hand in shaping these creature’s growth.
“If we can continue our efforts and have other people involved with training reinforcement learning brains, then…this is very unconventional for me as a director to say, but I want those creatures to mess up the film,” says Gagliano. “I want them to go in there and surprise us and do things that we never [expected], especially when you turn all five brains on and we can see little ecosystems forming and whatnot. And they’re far too dumb to do that right now.”