Life in the Virtual World

Thirty years ago, I was a spotty undergraduate student in university, studying for the possibility of a degree in computer science somewhere at the end of it all. One course drove me…well…into a bit of a froth – Artificial Intelligence. In those days, the holy grail seemed to be to build an artificial human life form – an android, perhaps like the character Data in Star Trek. It was all the rage in the academic computing community at that time. For various reasons, into the which I will not go just now, dear reader, I think all of that is a bit of a load of hogwash – such a creation is just not possible for Humankind, neither is it really any of its business. Such objections to AI such as mine stray dangerously into the realms of religion, subject matter on which I am not properly qualified to comment. But it’s just a gut feeling – I can never know what it is to be my neighbour, what they are feeling, dreaming, I can only form an impression based on the signals and outward expressions they either choose to exhibit, or happen to show by instinct. So, how could I ever know, for sure, whether I had been successful in creating an artificial human existence? We can create something that looks like it is intelligent, but could that intelligence ever be sentient? I just have a feeling that there is an insurmountable block around that one, which us humans are never really supposed to get over.

One thing humans can create, though, are virtual worlds. Indeed, who is to know whether the real world we live in isn’t just a huge virtual world, a simulation, if you will, created by some higher being, one “level” up? So, by the same token, perhaps we are able to create virtual worlds, simulations, ourselves, one level down. I think we are already doing that…Sim City, flight sims, train sims, space trading games…

I’m currently rather hooked on two such creations…

Train Simulator, previously variously known as Railworks, and before that Rail Simulator, consumes many, many hours of my leisure time. The developers have created for us an engine capable of recreating the world of the train, not only in the UK, but all around the globe. We, as the virtual modellers, come in and create all sorts of assets for the simulator – everything from the locomotives and other rolling stock, to the smallest buildings, and even, perhaps, a cat on a seat somewhere on a quintisentially English branch line from an age passed. The modellers are able to recreate history itself; I find it all so immersive. Designers and developers have clearly spent many, many hours researching their creations, and the detail they have achieved is impressive at the very least.

So, the opportunity arises – art from the simulation. Screenshots can be taken from the system. What thinkest thou, dear reader – reality or fiction amongst these humble efforts…?

Image inside the cab of a Black 5 engine

View from the Captain’s chair on a Black 5 locomotive


A Black 5 rests at the head of a train at Dumfries, Scotland, newly arrived from Carlisle


A local service to Dumfries meanders across the viaduct, leaving Annan

Then there is the return of an archetypal classic, a space trading game called Elite. Thirty years ago, two English chaps, Ian Bell and David Braben, created Elite for the BBC micro! nothing but line graphics, but it was ground-breaking in that it was one of the first games to use “3D” graphics – actually two dimensional renderings of the three dimensional world. I remember doing a course on the subject at Uni, just an introduction really, as the maths involved was well beyond me. We were creating cubes and colouring in the faces – Braben and Bell were doing dodecagons and having them rotate on the screen… Nuff said.

Now, thirty years on, and after a very successful crowd funding campaign, Elite is back, harnessing all the computing power and know how of thirty year’s research in the computer science world. The new game is known as Elite: Dangerous; currently in the beta stage of testing, it looks like it will have every ounce of immersing game play that was the hallmark of the original, then some. Three decades ago, Elite shaped my imagination. Today, I look forward to lulling myself to sleep with thought of wandering widely through star systems, with no one but my creator as a guide… No screen shots of this masterpiece to offer yet, but watch this space, eh?

My imagination is fizzing, dear reader. What say you to some stories of wandering on the virtual railway of yesteryear and today, or of swashbuckling escapades amongst the stars…? I think I’m going to enjoy this coming winter, a real holiday away from the real world…virtually!

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