In a landmark breakthrough in digital cruelty, researchers at Germany’s Tubingen University have taught popular video game character Mario to be sad. The University’s Cognitive Modelling Group demonstrated its breakthrough in a video promoting the Mario AI project, in which a version of Nintendo’s beloved mascot is allowed to autonomously explore an environment, driven, like the rest of us, by fear, hunger, and fleeting happiness.
The researchers describe the program as self-aware, “to a certain extent,” and capable of reporting on its own emotional states. These are determined by its environment and the irresistible voices in its head—in this case, vocal commands from the operator, rather than the mixture of religion, drugs, and bad brain chemistry that most of ushave to deal with. Mario reports on said states through a complex linguistic interface, allowing for statements like “Somehow I feel less happy :(” after being ordered to reduce his own happiness. Presumably, further research will allow Mario to add ever more elaborate emojis, like a crying cat or a pensive-looking valedictorian, to his emotional repertoire.
Besides fear and happiness, Mario is also driven by hunger—sated by chowing down on inexplicably floating hard metal coins, as one does—and curiosity. The latter statistic drives the program to fill in unknown information about the world by grabbing, bashing, and jumping on things, not unlike a deranged toddler on a pogo stick.
This isn’t the first time AI researchers have attempted to turn Nintendo’s beloved mascot into a better, faster, stronger plumber, as the game’s relatively simple ruleset (“Run right, avoid enemies, punch your stupid brother Jeremy when he won’t give you the controller even though it’s your turn”) lends itself to AI experimentation. Tubingen’s project stands out, though, due to the linguistic interface and its opportunities for self-reporting. Of course, a synthesized voice can only do so much to engender empathy for an artificial construct. But it does bring us closer to the day we might hear Mario voice actor Charles Martinet declare, in his most chipper fake Italian accent, “I’m-a Mario! I want-a to die!”