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Out of Control

It's the winter of 2001, in a corner of the Disney studio lot; a trailer is set up as a top-secret research lab. Reels of old Disney cartoons, stacks of gigabyte computer hard drives, and three 24-year-old-computer graphic artists hole up inside. In about three months they deconstruct Mickey Mouse. He is reanimated as a potentially 3-D being who only appears in two dimensions. He knows how to walk, leap, dance, show surprise and wave goodbye on his own. He can lip sync but can't talk. The entire overhauled Mickey fits onto one Syquest 2-gig portable disk.

The disk is walked over to the old animation studio, past its rows of empty and dusty animation stands, to the cubicles where the Silicon Graphics workstations are glowing. Mickey is popped into a computer. The animators have already created a fully detailed artificial world for the Mouse. He's cued up to the scene and the tape turned on. Roll! When Mickey trips on the stairs of his house, gravity hauls him down. The simulated physics of his rubbery rear end bouncing against the wooden stairs generates realistic hops. His cap is blown away by a virtual wind from the open front door, and when the carpet slides out from under him as he attempts to run after his hat, it bunches up in accordance with the physics of fabric, just as Mickey collapses under his own simulated weight. The only instruction Mickey got was to enter the room and be sure to chase his hat. The rest came naturally.

After 1997, nobody ever draws Mickey again. There's no need to. Oh, sometimes the animators butt in and touch up a critical facial expression here or there --- mere make-up artists the handlers call them -- but by and large Mickey is given a script and he obeys. And he -- or one of his clones -- works all year round on more than one film at once. Never complains, of course.

The graphic jocks aren't satisfied. They hook up a Maes learning module into Mickey's code. With this on, Mickey matures as an actor. He responds to the emotions and actions of the other great actors in his scenes -- Donald Duck and Goofy. Every time a scene is rerun, he remembers what he did on the keeper take and that gesture is emphasized next time. He evolves from the outside as well. The programmers tune up his code, give him improved smoothness, increase the range of his expressions, and beef up the depth of his emotions. He can play the "sensitive guy" now if needed.

But, over five years of learning, Mickey begins to get his own ideas. He somehow reacts hostilely to Donald, and becomes furious when he gets clunked on the head with a mallet. And when he is angry, he becomes obstinate. He balks when the director instructs him to walk off the edge of a cliff, having learned over the years to avoid obstacles and edges. Mickey's programmers complain that they can't code around these idiosyncrasies without disrupting all the other finely tuned traits and skills Mickey has acquired. "It's like an ecology," they say. "You can't remove one thing without disturbing them all." One graphic jock puts it best: "Actually, it's like a psychology. The Mouse has a real personality. You can't separate it. You've just got to work around it."

So by 2007, Mickey Mouse is quite an actor. He is a hot "property" as the agents say. He can speak. He can handle any kind of slapstick situation you can imagine. Does his own stunts. He has a great sense of humor, and the fabulous timing of a comedian. The only problem is that he is an SOB to work with. He'll suddenly fly off the handle and go berserk. Directors hate him. But they put up with him -- they've seen worse -- because, well, because he's Mickey Mouse.

Best of all, he'll never die, never age.

Disney foreshadowed this liberation of toons in its own film Roger Rabbit. Toons in this movie have their own independent life and dreams, but they have to stay in Toon Town, their own virtual world, except when we need them to work in our films. On the set, toons may or may not be cooperative and pleasant. They have the same whims and tantrums that human actors have. Roger Rabbit is just fiction, but someday Disney will have to deal with an autonomous out-of-control Roger Rabbit.

Control is the issue. In his first film, Steamboat Willie, Mickey was under the full control of Walt Disney. Disney and the Mouse were one. As more lifelike behaviors are implanted into Mickey, he is less at one with his creators and more out of their control. This is old news to anyone with kids or pets. But it is new news to anyone with a cartoon character, or machines that get smarter. Of course, neither kids nor pets are completely out of our control. There is the direct authority we have in their obedience, and the larger indirect control we have in their training and formation.

The fairest way to state this is that control is a spectrum. At one end there is the total domination of "as one" control. At the other is "out of control." In between are varieties of control we don't have words for.

Until recently, all our artifacts, all our own handmade creations have been under our authority. But as we cultivate synthetic life in our artifacts, we cultivate the loss of our command. "Out of control," to be honest, is a great exaggeration of the state that our enlivened machines will take. They will remain indirectly under our influence and guidance but free of our domination.

Though I have searched everywhere, I could not find the word that describes this type of clout. We simply have no name for the loose relationship between an influential creator and a creation with a mind of its own -- a thing we shall see more of. The realm of parent and child should have such a word, but sadly doesn't. We do better with sheep where we have the notion of "shepherding." When we herd a flock of sheep, we know we are not in complete authority, yet neither are we without control. Perhaps we will shepherd artificial lives.

We also "husband" plants, as we assist them in their natural goals, or deflect them slightly for our own. "Manage" is probably the closest in meaning to the general type of control we will need for artificial lives, such as a virtual Mickey Mouse. A women can "manage" her difficult child, or a barking dog, or the 300-strong sales department under her authority. Disney can manage Mickey in films.

"Manage" is close, but not perfect. Although we manage wilderness areas like the Everglades, we actually have little say in what goes on among the seaweed, snakes and marsh grass. Although we manage the national economy, it does what it wants. And although we manage a telephone network, we have no supervision on how a particular call is completed. The word "management" may imply more oversight then we really have in the examples above, and more than we will have in future very complex systems.