The end of humanity as we know it is approaching… or is it?

Some players of the recently popular AI Dungeon tend to think so. AI Dungeon is a text adventure game that uses advanced machine learning technology to dynamically respond to any inputs that you type in. Think of something like Zork, except now the setting can be anything you want it to be, and the story can take any direction you want it to take. It can be played right now in your browser or on your phone for free, although there is a premium version that gives you access to a more sophisticated version of the AI and more features for tweaking and customizing your experience.

Playing AI Dungeon is exciting. When I started to see how the AI took my inputs and worked with them to expand the world I was creating, effectively throwing me into various and often humorous situations, I got a sensation that anything was truly possible with it. The AI’s responses were interesting, human-like, and sometimes surprisingly in-depth, and it occasionally put out some really enjoyable exposition. Granted, the game is all text, so much of the adventure has to come from your imagination, but as someone with an active one who enjoys reading already, a text adventure built on such a flexible AI can be very immersive. Not to mention, this was from simply playing by myself — AI Dungeon also offers a multiplayer mode, which, while I haven’t had the opportunity to try it myself yet, is no doubt even more immersive and leads to much greater adventures (as long as you’re playing with someone with an active imagination, too).

The sheer spectacle and freedom that AI Dungeon appears to grant the player at the onset, however, is not quite as vast and stunning as it first seems. While it is true that the AI can respond to virtually any input, it has a lot of trouble maintaining the consistency of things. For that reason, the developers have added features which allow you to manually enter keys, or names, along with descriptions, which force the AI to remember certain details about the world that you create. This weakness is so strong that the AI can even forget the name of the character you are playing, so it will be necessary for you to enter yourself as a key. However, if you are genuinely enthusiastic about playing an AI-powered text adventure, and are interested in bringing out the best of your imagination for going on a grand adventure full of characters and locations, you probably won’t see this as being too much of a detriment to your fun. Once you start to build out your setting and cast of characters, and you plug these in as keys for the AI to remember, your story will start to unravel in unforeseen ways while maintaining its coherency. At that point, the fun really begins, and anything is possible.

Also, it should quickly become apparent that AI Dungeon is not much of a game in the typical sense. There are no rules besides that you need to keep your own role in the story going. If your character dies, or if your character’s role in the story is fulfilled, the “game” ends. It is more fitting for the “interactive fiction” title than Zork and other text adventure games. However, it is very easy to avoid either of these from ever happening, and you can always undo your actions and try again. So long as you avoid them, the game will never have an ending until you force it to have one. As a result, there is no real sense of urgency at all, because the progress of the story fully depends on you; you can detour off of the main story whenever and wherever you please, for however long you like. There is no real challenge and the AI isn’t really capable of crafting well-thought-out puzzles or obstacles for the player (although it does love to try to use the surrounding environment to kill you as frequently as possible). Rather, AI Dungeon is merely a kind of writing software with an advanced AI tool attached to it. With this in mind, AI Dungeon loses most of its appeal for me, and makes something like Zork more appealing, but for someone who perhaps enjoys writing fiction as a pastime, there is probably a lot of entertainment value in it.

Occasionally, AI Dungeon gives you a weird and incoherent response, or tells you that it can’t come up with one. The latter result is very rare, but the weird responses seem to be increasing over time as more players interact with the AI and it learns some uncanny thinking patterns. However, this can be easily circumvented by using the built-in refresh tool, which forces the AI to come up with a new response if you don’t like the current one. You can also edit a response directly. While the AI can respond to your inputs, you will have to do some of the heavy lifting yourself at times.

The current version of AI Dungeon released in December 2019, but it is not a finished product by any means. AI Dungeon is an ongoing project that is not only still being worked on by the developers, but also still being constructed by its constant interactions with players, who are even able to tag their adventures and share them with others. In a sense, AI Dungeon will never really be complete. It will constantly be changing and expanding, and that’s the beauty of it.

Does all this mean that human writers will eventually become unnecessary for creating new adventures for games, or new works of fiction for the consumer of light adventurous reading? Will the AI eventually become sophisticated enough to write entire novels on its own that measure up to some of the best works written so far, if not surpass them? And, as far as adventure games go, will AI Dungeon eventually dominate that space, becoming so complex and spontaneous that there won’t be a need for any other text adventure or much need for any adventure games in general? Even further still, will there eventually be an AI so advanced that it will make humans as a species obsolete? Between AI Dungeon and other recent programs developed thanks to innovations in neural networking, these questions are beginning to run rampant on the internet.

At this point we have to ask ourselves what human consciousness means to us. This is a question that philosophers have grappled with for millennia, and it is one that developers and advocates of AI often champion as being more relevant to their domain than to any other, since their work is concerned with reproducing and ultimately surpassing human consciousness. It is a topic I have read and thought about for quite some time, and one which I have come to an unwavering conclusion on. Without escaping the scope of this article, I’ll summarize: if AI is ever to become conscious in the way that humans understand consciousness, it will have to become indistinguishable from us, at which point, it will simply be another human. Humans as a species will not have become obsolete at all due to the arrival of such an AI, because it won’t really be an AI anymore (the “artificial” part will become meaningless). Allow me to explain.

First of all, based on my interactions with AI Dungeon, I can tell you that the only aspect of human consciousness being simulated at this time is our capacity for reason, or mere thinking, as in combining words logically. AI Dungeon is capable of linking words with pre-existing definitions together in a manner that is coherent to us, but it does not understand these words on its own, because it lacks perception. AI Dungeon does not perceive the world as we do; it has no ability of its own to judge things, and no senses from which to derive anything from. Our consciousness deeply relies on our perception of the world, which is ultimately dictated not only by our intellect, but by our senses as well. Words alone possess nothing without the perceptive experiences which we connect to them. Without these experiences to refer to, words are empty symbols without meaning; this is why when we engage with a language we don’t know, it does not affect us in any way, bringing nothing to mind besides perhaps the fact that we are looking at a language that we don’t know. It is only when we finally connect these new foreign words to our experiences based in perception that they start to have meaning to us, which is precisely how we learn any language, in fact.

So, without a body like ours — one that senses as ours does, that grows and perceives things, and experiences the full range of emotions that we experience, such as pleasure and pain, measures of time and space, love and hate, fear and death, and so on — the AI is incapable of our perception, and therefore, the words it uses are not any words that we use. We do not use words in such an unperceptive way, because we understand and perceive, while the AI does not. It is not capable of understanding because it lacks a perceiving body such as ours. It simply strings keys together, empty symbols without meaning and no attachments besides other meaningless referential data only. But if it were to possess a perceiving body (like ours, rather than another species’), then the words it used would have meaning like ours do, and combined with its capacity to think, it would simply be human, rather than something that marks the end of humanity as we know it.

And what about an AI that will surpass humans, you ask? The only way I see AI ever surpassing us is in the realm of that thinking, in the ability to process information and connect words together. Because a computer can process data faster than we can, an AI could possess more knowledge and a brain that processes and utilizes that knowledge faster and more accurately than our brains. However, an AI can never surpass us in terms of perception, which consequently means in creativity or wisdom too, since these rely on a combination of knowledge with perception. In order for the AI to surpass us in this way, and reach a truly deeper understanding of the world than ours, we must be capable of creating a body more complex and perceptive than our own, which is about as easy as imagining a color that does not exist. Until we come in contact with an alien species with such a body, assuming such a species can even exist, the possibility of a human-created AI surpassing us is absolutely out of the question.

And that’s about all there is to say on the philosophical matter of AI. While AI Dungeon is a fun-to-use writing software, it does not signal anything more important than that. It does not even signal a dramatic change for games, because AI Dungeon is not actually a game. Where it innovates in the realm of AI I couldn’t comment on, since I’m only a beginner programmer.

What concerns me more is what applications and uses such an AI can have for supporting human creativity rather than replacing it. How can such an AI be used to handle the heavy lifting and mundane aspects of our creative work? Can it be used to produce digital assets quicker for us? Can a limited form of this AI be implemented within a real game for creating more dynamic and useful systems, like writing dialogue or item descriptions, or populating towns with characters, or for the generation of uniquely behaving enemies? We of course already have games which rely on algorithms to dynamically spawn things, but with an AI that is more sophisticated, perhaps we could really get something like what Bethesda has always promised with its RPGs, which is a world that truly feels like it is endlessly expansive and rich in side quests, characters, and mystery.

Of course, there is always the application that doesn’t service creativity and game design, but services our productivity instead. I’m referring to virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana. The movie Her doesn’t seem all that far-fetched anymore, does it? A virtual assistant that could be customized for you, that could learn things about you, and even have conversations with you, is just around the corner. AI Dungeon has a voice generation feature, so its dynamic outputs can even be voiced like in that movie. I can foresee this technology being very useful, but also very destructive to some, appealing too strongly to people’s underlying narcissism to the point where they completely isolate themselves from society, much like what happened to Joaquin Phoenix’s character. But, fearing the future is not healthy; it is better to learn to love and embrace it, so that you can be better ready for it.

Only time will tell how AI will develop, and what its uses will be. For now, I recommend not worrying about it, and checking out AI Dungeon in the meantime. If you enjoy writing fiction (especially fan fiction) I’m willing to bet you’ll find it relaxing.