Relations between the sciences and cultural studies in the United States are in a state of crisis. The cultural studies of science -- also called cultural critique of science or science studies -- study how cultural metaphors inform scientific work and uncover deeply-held but unstated assumptions that underly it. These insights can contribute great value to science's self-understanding . However, productive exchanges between cultural critics and scientists interested in the roots of their work are hampered by the disciplinary divide between them . This divide blocks cultural critics from access to a complete understanding of the process and experience of doing science, which can degrade the quality of their analyses and may lead them to misinterpret scientific practices. At the same time, scientists have difficulty understanding the context and mindset of critiques of their work , making them unlikely to consider such critiques seriously or realize their value for their work, potentially even leading them to dismiss all humanistic critiques of science as fundamentally misguided .
The unfortunate result of this situation is a growing polarization of the two sides. In the so-called ``Science Wars'' , pockets of fascinating interdisciplinary exchanges and intellectually illuminating debate are sadly overwhelmed by an overall lack of mutual understanding and accompanying decline of goodwill. While most participants on both sides of the divide are fundamentally reasonable, communication between them is impaired when both sides feel isunderstood and under attack. This siege mentality not only undermines the possibility for productive cooperation; with unfortunate frequency, it goes as far as cross-fired accusations of intellectual bankruptcy in academic and popular press and nasty political battles over tenure. These unpleasant incidents not only help no one but also obscure the fact that both the academic sciences and the humanities are facing crises of funding in an economy that values quick profit and immediate reward over a long-term investment in knowledge.
The premise of my project is that things could be different. I
believe that, rather than being inherently antagonistic, science and humanistic
studies of science-in-culture could benefit greatly from each other's strengths;
in fact, such interdisciplinary forays have already begun [16,
18, 19, 20, 21,
22, 23]. My technique for integrating
science and critique uses detailed cultural critique of specific scientific
work to develop new science and technology, thereby aiding the goals of
and the humanities. With this technique,
the insights of cultural studies into the foundations of science can be
made deeper by intimate knowledge of science; these insights, in turn,
can be used to make improvements to science and technology both critics
and scientists can be enthusiastic about, without putting either discipline
in the position of preaching to the other. For the last 7 years I have
been working on methodologies that draw on the strengths of cultural theory
to analyze and understand my technical field, Artificial Intelligence (AI);
I then use these results to develop new technologies in AI as well as deeper
theories of science in cultural theory. The goal of my proposed work
is to exchange strategies for negotiating the science / culture divide
with work premised on the fundamentally different European split between
the science and the humanities; this work will be accomplished by focusing
on a concrete scientific project involving both sociocultural and technical
components at an interdisciplinary institution, the Zentrum fuer Kunst
An important topic in current computational research is the creation of virtual environments, richly detailed simulations designed to give the user a feeling of being immersed in an alternative world. These simulations may contain artificial creatures, or ``agents,'' who interact with the user. In these systems, the user becomes a part of the environment by controlling an ``avatar,'' a computational agent which represents the user and acts on behalf of him or her in the world. For example, in an educational simulation of a beaver dam, the user will learn about being a beaver by controlling a virtual beaver avatar; other users of the system will `see' the user as a beaver, and the user's view of the environment may be rendered as a beaver would see it.
In most existing virtual environments, the avatar is considered a direct embodiment of the user in a virtual environment. The user therefore directly control their avatar, either by giving simple commands (``go north;'' ``pick up the box'') or, in relatively physical environments, by using hardware that monitors the user's body movements and converts them into movements for the avatar's body. However, as the complexity of virtual environments increases and, with it, the scope and complexity of possible avatar behavior, it becomes more difficult for the user to control the avatar using simple low-level commands. In response, avatars have been built that allow the user to specify behavior at various levels - from ``go north'' to ``find me an appropriate article'' to ``negotiate the release of hostages'' - while the avatar uses its own intelligence to fill in the details [31, 32, 34].
As avatars become more independent, the idea that the avatar is simply a representation of the user becomes problematic. Technical problems arise, since the avatar must engage in autonomous action while still accurately reflecting the desires of the user. These problems are hard to solve when the metaphor of avatar-as-user keeps researchers themselves from fully recognizing the difficulties in avatar-user coordination .
Critics of science have problems with this metaphor as well. The idea of avatar as simple extension of the user has worried several critics [37, 38, 40], because, as J. MacGregor Wise points out , the invisible interface makes it difficult for both researchers and users to develop a critical understanding of the possibilities and constraints imposed by the interface. For example, while promising the user full engagement, avatars are frequently only able to do a small part of what the user wants, and, for more complex avatars such as information-gathering programs on the Web, may confound the user by acting on idiosyncratic, unstated interpretations of the user's commands.
Both technical and critical considerations imply that the currently dominant metaphor of ``user $=$ avatar'' is not up to the task of describing or innovatively solving this interface problem. The avatar interface project lays the groundwork for solutions to the user-avatar-system interface by (1) analyzing the presuppositions of current avatar interfaces, (2) exploring the space of alternative metaphors by which the agent-user relationship could be understood, (3) understanding the technical challenges and philosophical commitments involved in implementing systems based on these metaphors, and (4) building a concrete technical implementation of a novel avatar interface that incorporates results of this exploration. The project is intended to advance the state of the art while developing critical understanding of avatar interfaces among both researchers and users. The proposed interfaces will be designed to have two properties: (1) mostly technical: provide users with an intuitive way to interact with a complex agent; (2) mostly cultural: allow users an intuitive understanding of the limitations and constraints the system places on them.
Specifically, my proposed project has the following components:
1. Analysis of Previous Work: I will review and critically analyze the state of the art in avatar interfaces in textual and graphical virtual environments and on the internet. Here, by ``avatar interface'' I do not mean the hard- or software by which a person can be attached to a computer, but the AI problem of finding conceptual ways to influence an intelligent agent's behavior with a user's desires. This study will lay the groundwork for improving current systems by addressing the following questions: how is the relationship between the user and the avatar understood? how is the user's feel for the constraints and possibilities in the system shaped by the avatar interface? how is the full engagement of the user in the system limited by the avatar interface? what are the technical limitations of the interface approach? what philosophical presuppositions are made in the construction of the interface?I believe that I can accomplish this work in 10 months because it builds on the intellectual and technical accomplishments of my thesis, in which I build agents in a virtual environment that combine many different behaviors while remaining coherent and understandable to a user. In this work, I have created and applied design concepts that challenge and transform current paradigms in AI. In particular, I focus on `socially situated AI;' this means understanding the agent, not, as in much previous work, as an autonomous being without reference to its sociocultural situation, but rather as a kind of
2. Generation of Alternatives: Starting from the metaphors underlying current systems, I will explore possible alternative metaphors for the avatar interface. Possible dimensions of this exploration include interfaces that are less invisible to the user, that do not have to be directly controlled by the user, or that subjectively manipulate presentation of the virtual environment (as explored in ). In general, this study will provide a basis for evaluating the unstated assumptions of current interfaces by understanding what interfaces based on different assumptions would be like.
3. Detailed Technical Designs: Based on these new metaphors, I will sketch the design of several novel interfaces (on the order of 5). The design sketches will include the philosophical commitments and implications of these systems, as well as their technical difficulties and proposed solutions to the newly introduced technical problems.
4. Concrete Implementation: I will anchor my cultural analysis of the state of the art by simultaneously building a prototype of an avatar interface based on a novel metaphor of avatar-user interaction. The avatar in this interface is an independent being who is not directly commanded but indirectly influenced by the user. An interesting metaphor from psychology that reflects this viewpoint is the ``Influencing Machine,'' a paranoid delusion first described by Victor Tausk  that a machine is indirectly controlling one's thoughts and actions by projecting hallucinations, producing and removing thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, and altering one's bodily constitution. I will build an interface where the human user is an `influencing machine' for the avatar, who responds to the user's attempted manipulations according to the avatar's own personality and goals.
The interface to the agent is represented to the user by a menu of indirect controls that are appropriate to the current situation. Previous work in indirect control has studied user manipulation of the agent's environment ; here, the user will be able to affect the avatar's internal state. The initial set of indirect controls are based directly on the metaphor of the Influencing Machine: allowing the user to project hallucinations in the environment, to change the avatar's emotional levels, and to cause the avatar to have particular thoughts. This set will subsequently be expanded based on the results of the analysis of other avatar interfaces. The Influencing Machine interface is intended to fulfill the dual goals of the project by making clear that the avatar is not a direct reflection of the user, while still allowing the user a rich variety of interaction with their avatar and, through the avatar, the virtual environment. The interface will be evaluated by a qualitative study of style of user interaction with various indirect controls.
In addition, there is currently a push by the European Union to develop technology that can integrate social and cultural factors. i3, the ESPRIT project on integrated intelligent information systems, is a multi-institution project building information systems where technical, social, and human factors are integrated and developing ``new forms of interaction that will place the human as an active participant in rather than a passive recipient of information.'' The i3 subproject ``Inhabited Information Spaces,'' of which ZKM is a member, focuses directly on building virtual environments; the development of avatar interfaces for them that are practical to use and simultaneously give the user a feeling of the constraints of the system will be an important contribution to fulfilling the goal of having an informed user as full participant.
The ZKM itself is a center of media art and technology. The goal of the Bildmedien Institut is to research and develop media technology, including virtual environments, while promoting the use of this technology in artwork. As part of its mission, prominent media artists from around the world are invited to spend 2-3 year sabbaticals developing media technologies and artworks based on them in collaboration with technical staff. While media research is not unique to ZKM, the Bildmedien Institut has integrated art and artists with the development of technology to an unusual degree. The approach of interdisciplinary collaboration can inform my proposed work, and can in turn be enriched by my interdisciplinary experience. The avatar interface technology integrates well with ZKM's work on i3 and virtual environments, giving me opportunities to collaborate. In addition, my experience in transforming critical analysis into detailed technological designs could be a useful resource when artists are transforming their visions into technology.
ZKM itself is also well-situated for interactions with other institutions.
It is near and has links with the University of Karlsruhe, which has strong
computer science and robotics programs. I can interact with these
program's technical researchers and share the technical expertise I have
gained on believable agents, action-selection, and agent architectures
while a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon. By being a part of the
i3 project, ZKM shares the goal of virtual environments that integrate
social and technical factors with a dozen or more other important European
computer science research institutes, including the Gesellschaft fuer Maschinelle
Datenverarbeitung, the Deutsches Forschungsinstitut fuer Kuenstliche Intelligenz,
and the Vrije Universiteit Brussels. Regular meetings between the groups
involved encourage the interchange of ideas and strategies. Being
in Europe would also give me an opportunity to engage in closer collaboration
with Pit Schultz and Geert Lovink, organizers of the Nettime movement for
interdisciplinary debate about technology and new media. While much
European academic discussion is in English, my command of German and Dutch
is sufficient to allow for the easy interchange of ideas in casual conversation
as well as technical written exchanges.
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