Bot or not?

Here’s a new short story for you in my ‘Avatar Dining Club’ series.  Happy Sunday, everyone!

For the fourth meeting of the Avatar Dining Club, it was Jennifer Bit who brought a virtual guest to L’Albero Verde, the Italian restaurant which served as the venue for our now monthly meals in real life together.  Four meetings, I reflected, as I hung up my coat in the corner by the upright piano (which I had yet to see played), seemed significant.  Four meetings felt like a permanent arrangement.  If the first occasion could be put down to experimental social happenstance, the second to experience verification and the third to not much more than politeness, then the fourth had to denote some sort of commitment.  Meeting four, I decided, was where the people who didn’t really want to be there would probably start dropping out.  As I made my way to our table, I wondered if we would be receiving any such apologies that evening and was therefore pleasantly surprised to see all six other members present and correct.  Purple-haired club owner, Indigo Williams was leaning across the table and chatting to fashion blogger Mary-Anne Middlemarch whilst Jennifer fussed over her laptop, aided by Rainy September to her right and the young metaverse builder, Raw Concrete, hovering over their shoulders behind them and offering what appeared to be mostly not required instructions.  Jennifer was a man in real life, however the rule of the dining club was that we adopted our virtual world identities for each meeting.  None of us knew any of the others’ real life names.

That left Edward, the club’s founder and most elderly member, a white-haired gentleman who appeared to relish every moment we spent together in discussion.  Currently he was leaning back in his chair with his arms folded and regarding the table and its occupants with a smile of quiet appreciation on his face.  But he looked up when I passed and declared, “Leonard!  I was discussing your literary endeavours just last night.”

“In a positive manner, I trust,” I replied, as I took my usual seat in the middle of the side to his right.

“A friend of mine called Grandiose Gestures is utterly convinced that your first novel was largely based upon her own metaverse experiences,” he told me.  “She seems to believe you must be a secret alt of someone she knows.”

“Actually, lots of people tell me that,” I said, reaching for the menu.  “It’s both flattering and weird.”

“Weird?” repeated Raw, who had given up on being authoritative with Jennifer and Rainy and taken up his seat to my left.  “Why is it weird?”

“Ordinarily, if you read something that resonates with your own life you might think, ‘what a great author this must be to have tuned in so sensitively to the essence of these sorts of experiences such that his writing connects to me so effectively,’” I told him.  “Only in the virtual world do you encounter instead the view that you’ve just ripped off someone else’s story.”

“Only in the virtual world,” said Edward, “does there exist the possibility that a famous personality is actually someone you know well as an avatar.”

“I wouldn’t say he’s famous,” interjected Raw, before I could make a similar comment out of modesty.  “I suppose you could say I’m a minor personality,” I said instead, with a casual, hopefully disinterested looking wave of my hand.

“Very minor,” commented Indigo.

“Minor is minor,” I said.  “You don’t need to subdivide it.”

“Oh there’s gradations of minor,” Mary-Anne chipped in.  “I’d say you’re about a D-list celebrity in the metaverse.”

“D-list?!” I replied, unable to hide my indignance.  “I thought that list only went as far as C.”

“C is as far as media interest drops to,” said Rainy.  “Anything below that is noteworthy only if you do something controversial, like get caught having an affair or become the victim of a DMCA filing.”

“Or die,” said Raw.

“Technically, though, that constitutes a temporary elevation to C-list rather than an actual D-list interest,” Mary-Anne commented.

“Thanks for the clarification,” I said to her.

“I’ve often wondered if someone I know in the virtual world is someone famous in real life,” Indigo said, looking briefly in my direction and adding, “Actually famous, that is.”

“We could be rubbing shoulders with film-stars, rock singers and presidents, for all we know!” exclaimed Mary-Anne.

“If I am,” Edward told us, “I rather hope I never find out.”

“Speak for yourself,” Rainy said.  “I wouldn’t be disappointed in the slightest to discover that my metaverse boyfriend was in fact the heir to the throne of, let’s say, a small, oil-rich nation.”

“You have a new boyfriend?” Indigo asked.

“Oh yes!” Rainy replied.  “I wasn’t going to mention him.”  I didn’t believe that for a moment; the conversation wasn’t yet even ten minutes old.  “He’s such a catch.  We’re going to get metaverse married next week!”

“Oh, we should all go!” Mary-Anne cried.  Edward frowned.  Though it wasn’t such a hard and fast rule as the ‘no real life details’ policy, the group founder had advised us from the first meeting that it would probably be for the best if we didn’t meet up with each other inworld.  I reminded her of this.

“I only fear that it might burst in some way the very pleasant bubble we currently inhabit,” said Edward.

“We’re in a bubble?” Raw asked.

“It’s a metaphor,” Indigo told him.  “I realise that’s a mental stretch for a builder.”

“I get metaphors,” the young man told her stiffly.  “I’m just struggling with this one.”

“Okay!” Jennifer announced.  “We’re on the wireless.  Let me call up Lobelia.  She should be waiting for us.”

“Speaking of bubbles bursting,” Mary-Anne said, delicately, “does she know that you’re a, um…”

“Man?” replied Jennifer.  “She does.  She’s one of only three online friends who knows.  Apart from you guys, of course,” she added.  “Well, you guys are… different, somehow.”

“And there is the definition of our bubble,” Edward stated.

Jennifer arranged the laptop at the far end of the table opposite Edward and called up her friend.  After a few seconds of ringing, a brown-haired, middle-aged woman appeared on the screen, looking like she was just swallowing a mouthful of food.  She immediately giggled at the sight of herself doing this.  “I’m so sorry for starting without you!” she laughed, “but I was so hungry!  I haven’t eaten for hours!  Hello everyone!”  She peered at her screen.  “Which one are you, Jen?”

“Right here, Loby,” Jennifer said, with a wave and then proceeded to introduce the rest of us.  “Loby owns a region,” she told the table.  “A really beautiful one.  I spend a lot of my down-time there.”

“What sort of a region is it?” Raw asked.

“It’s part nature and part small town,” Lobelia said, using that slightly louder than necessary voice we all seem to drop into when speaking on cam.  “I have a bar and a bookstore and a barber’s shop, and a community hall where we have occasional parties.  All very average.  Nothing you can’t find elsewhere inworld these days.”

“She’s so modest,” Jennifer said.  “Her eye is amazing.  She puts things together so perfectly and her attention to detail is incredible.”

“You’re embarrassing me, Jen!” Lobelia cried.  “I spend half my time on the grid snooping around other people’s sims and stealing their ideas.”

“Oh please!” Jennifer declared.  “It’s not a crime to spot something you like somewhere and look up its creator.”

Lobelia’s big smile shrunk, just a little.  “Not everyone would agree with that,” she said.

The waiter came and we all ordered.  Whilst we waited for the food to come, we chatted about the various stressors experienced by a sim owner when it came to balancing being a good host and enforcing a standard of conduct for visitors.  A spirited, but light-hearted debate broke out about dress codes.  Finally our meals were placed before us.

“What did you mean earlier on,” I asked Lobelia, “when you said not everyone would agree in there being no harm in checking out other people’s stuff?”

She was halfway through a mouthful of something (I could only make out that it had been green), so Jennifer spoke up.  “I’m glad you asked, Leonard,” she said, with a slight twinkle in her eye.  “Loby has a little mystery for us!”

“Of course she does!” Indigo declared.  “We couldn’t just have a meal without a mystery for Edward.”  Every meal so far had involved one, each solved by our founder member (much as he liked to protest that we were not some sort of virtual world detective agency).

“Now now, my dear,” Edward said to Indigo.  “Let’s not be offputting to our guest.”  His eyes went back to the laptop screen and I could see the interest within them.  “Do tell us your story, Lobelia.  I’m sure we will all do our very best to help.”

“Oh it’s a stupid thing, really,” our guest told us.  “I’m sure there’s nothing at all to solve and you’ll just tell me I’m being silly.  I went to a quite high profile sim recently and had a nose around, and ended up seeing a beautiful lighthouse there which I then bought for my own place.  And a set of park benches.  The sim owner is really cheesed off with me and has accused me of stealing her ideas.”

“That’s it?” asked Raw, who had already managed to make his way through a third of the huge Hawaiian pizza he’d ordered.  “That’s not exactly a mystery.”

“There is no mystery, really,” Lobelia told him.  “It’s just a small thing.  When I went to the sim to look around, there was nobody there the whole time except for a bot who tends bar in this little pub they have.  But when the owner messaged me about the whole thing the next day she seemed to know that I’d been there and what I’d been doing.”

“Bots can be programmed to record the details of visitors and report that information to their owners,” I said.

“Yes, of course,” she replied.  “But they wouldn’t be able to record things like where you stood or what you did.  I’ll give you an example.  Flying’s banned on the sim but I overrode the block so I could zip around it more quickly – I always like to explore at least a little by air.  One of the things that cheesed her off especially was that I’d broken this rule.  She said not only did I rip off her ideas but I disrespected her.  But how did she know about this?  No bot I know of can detect flying – you’d have to be a person to actually see that happening.”

“It sounds like she needs to get over herself,” Rainy commented.

“Are there neighbouring sims?” Raw asked.  “Someone could have been looking in from one of them.”

“It’s a private island,” Jennifer said.  “No-one can look in.  But tell them your theory, Loby.”

“Well the only thing I can think of,” she said, “is that the bot wasn’t a bot at all, but someone pretending to be a bot.”

“What led you to believe it was a bot in the first place?” Mary-Anne asked her.

“It says so in its profile.  And the first thing you get when you land there is this scripted greeting from him with a notecard about the sim rules.  I’ve been there several times since – I apologised to her and removed the lighthouse; she was okay about the benches.  But I’m right in thinking a bot owner can just log in as that avatar themselves if they want to, aren’t I?”

“Of course,” Indigo said.  “I use a bot dancer at my club.  I’ve logged in as her several times just to freak out a client with some off-script dialogue.  Well, if there really was no-one else around that time you visited then you must be right.  The bot was not a bot.  Mystery solved, I guess.”

“A short one this time,” Mary-Anne said.

“I suppose so,” Lobelia said, looking a little disheartened.

“What Loby wants to know,” Jennifer told us, “is whether it’s possible to prove that a bot is not a bot.”

“To prove it?!” Raw cried.  “That’s impossible.”

“How on Earth,” Indigo asked him, “is it impossible?  Just ask it some questions.  If it’s a person then they’ll trip up eventually and say something that doesn’t sound scripted.”

“Not necessarily,” Raw replied.

“I’ve tried that anyway,” Lobelia said.  “I’ve been several times since and spoken to the bot in private message.  I get nothing but bot text, whatever I ask him.  Let me give you an example.”  She paused for a moment whilst she brought something up on her screen.  “I saved this last week,” she said.  “This is just an excerpt.  It went on for ages.”

The conversation went like this:

Lobelia: How are you Bob?
Bob: Fair to partly cloudy.
Lobelia: Are you having a nice day?
Bob: I have having fun.
Lobelia: That’s good to hear.
Bob: “I have having fun.”?  Is good to hear?
Lobelia: Yes it is.
Bob: Our thoughts are one, Lobelia.
Lobelia: Why?
Bob: The explanation is rather complicated.
Lobelia: Try explaining it to me.
Bob: OK I will try it.
Lobelia: Go on then…
Bob: Narration continues…
Lobelia: Are you enjoying the nice weather?
Bob: I’m not sure if I like it. What is it like?
Lobelia: It is nice.
Bob: What do you like about it?
Lobelia: The sunshine.
Bob: What else do the sunshine remind you of?
Lobelia: Happy summer memories.
Bob: Happy summer memories to you too, Lobelia.

“See?” Lobelia said.  “Pure bot.  You probably all think I’m being crazy obsessional about this, but it’s driving me nuts!”

“Well it sounds just like a bot to me,” Indigo said.  “Perhaps the times you’ve been quizzing it like this it really has been just a bot.  Surely that’s the simplest explanation.”

“Know what I’d do if I wanted to pull this off?” Raw asked us.  “I’d have an actual bot I know of in one private message window and then copy whatever I got asked into that and then copy back whatever bot text I got as my reply.  That’s why I said it was impossible.”

“The perfect spying device,” Rainy commented.  “You get to stand in plain sight and observe everything going on around you and no-one suspects a thing.”

“Exactly!” Raw declared.

“What if you walked into the bot with your avatar and moved it to a different position?” Mary-Anne suggested.  “Then see if it moves back to its spot.  A bot wouldn’t do that.”

“They’re hardly going to move that whilst you’re standing there watching,” Raw snorted.

“I realise that!” she replied.  “But you could go away and return half an hour later and see if it had moved back whilst you were gone.”

“That’s not exactly proof though, is it?” I said.  “For all you know someone else could have come along and bumped them back in that direction whilst you weren’t there.”

“In any case,” Lobelia said, “Bob’s on a static pose ball.  You can’t budge him.  I already tried that.”  She seemed to blush a little.”

“What if you did something totally outrageous?” Rainy asked.  “Some huge violation of the sim rules the owner would have to intervene over.  Like, for example-” she stopped when Lobelia coughed.

“I thought of that too.  I created a newbie alt and walked him around naked, wearing only a ginormous male appendage.”  This time, she definitely blushed.

“And nothing happened?” several of us asked at once.

“Oh, my alt got banned alright,” she said.  “But what happened was the sim owner herself just happened to come along a few minutes after I started doing that and so she hit the button on me.  Bob didn’t say a word about it.”

“Just happened to come along, huh?” Rainy asked.

“Exactly.  Very convenient.  I tried it a second time a few days later with a different alt and the exact same thing happened, only it took I suppose a minute or two longer.”

“And that’s not proof enough for you?”

“I know it’s very suggestive,” she said, “but I want something definitive!”

“Either it really is a bot or the sim owner’s doing what Raw described,” Indigo said.  “And if she is, well then I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do to prove it.  Not definitively.”

“Nothing whatsoever at all,” Raw agreed.

“Hold on just a moment!” Mary-Anne interjected.  “We haven’t heard Edward’s views yet!”

Edward looked up from his salad.  “Me?  Oh I doubt very much that I could cast any light on this one.  You seem to have it pretty much sewn up.”  He forked a tomato and studied it, appearing to be avoiding eye contact.

“Come on, Edward,” I told him.  “I know you have an idea.  Spill it.”

He paused for a moment.  Then he put his fork down.  “Well there is one possibility.  But it would involve a minor breach of the bubble to which I was referring earlier.  We’d need both Lobelia and someone from here to log in and try something out.”

“No problem!” Raw declared.  He reached around for his rucksack, hung on the back of his chair, and pulled out a laptop.  “I always come prepared.”  Edward directed Lobelia to go to the sim in question and teleport Raw over once he’d logged in.  Whilst they did that, he cautioned us against getting too excited.  “As Indigo said, there’s no guarantee that the bot won’t be a bot when we get there,” he told us, “if it ever was not a bot in the first place.  This is very tentative.”

Raw logged in and we crowded temporarily around his screen to watch.

“What’s that big white thing?” Jennifer asked.

“Sorry,” Raw said.  “I was working on something fiddly earlier and left my view on ultra-zoom.  What you’re seeing there is just my mic dot.”  He reduced the zoom and the big white circle shrank back down to the tiny little dot that floats above the head of every avatar that has voice enabled.  Meanwhile, a teleport request from Lobelia popped up on the screen and he took it.

He materialised in front of her avatar outside of a small country pub.  “Nice outfit,” Indigo commented.  “Thanks!” Lobelia called from the other laptop.  “Bob’s just inside.  Shall we go in?”  Right at that moment, a message appeared from him on the screen in front of us, welcoming Raw to the island and offering a notecard of the rules.

The two avatars entered the building and we got our first glimpse of Bob, who was standing behind the bar in a thick sweater and polishing endlessly a glass.  “I want a good view of him,” Edward instructed Raw.  “Just like that, yes.  Perfect.  Now then: I’m going to ask you some questions and I want you to answer me in text, typing your replies into the chat box.”

“Why?” Raw asked.

Edward smiled enigmatically.  “Well let’s just see what happens.”

“What should I do?” Lobelia called.

“Nothing my dear,” Edward told her.  “I simply need you to be standing nearby.”

“Okay, I’m ready,” Raw said.

“Good.  So then.  What is two times three?”

Raw typed ‘6’ and hit the enter key.

“Excellent, my boy.  Next, what colour is Bob’s sweater?”

Raw typed, ‘Blue.’

“Anyone can see that it’s navy,” Rainy commented.

“Did you see the jukebox when you entered?” Edward asked.

‘Yes,’ Raw wrote.

“Where was it?  Don’t look, now – we need to keep Bob in view.”

‘Over by the front door,’ Raw entered.

“What do you think of the build quality of this pub?”

‘I’ve seen better.  Much better.’

“Oh!” Jennifer cried.  “Look!”

“What?” said Raw.  “What happened?”

“I saw it too,” Indigo said, grinning broadly.  “Me too!” called Lobelia, excitedly.  I looked more closely at the laptop screen and suddenly it dawned on me.  Then Mary-Anne got it.  Then Rainy.

Finally, Raw realised too.  “He’s got mic dot over his head!  He didn’t have one when we got here, right?”

“Indeed he did not,” Edward confirmed.

“You made him think there was a voice conversation going on around him, so he enabled voice so that he – or rather, she – could listen in,” said Indigo.  “Very clever, Edward.”

“The idea was all Rainy’s,” he replied.  “She was the one who commented that the function of a fake bot might be to observe all that was going on in the sim without anyone realising.  Well, observing isn’t only watching; observing is listening too.”

On the laptop at the end of the table, Lobelia had put on her voice headset and on the laptop in front of us her avatar turned to face the barman.  “I saw your mic dot turn on!” she said to him.  “You’re busted, Bob.  Not a bot!”

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