Non-playable characters just got more believable; John McEnroe at Commencement; an NCAA four-peat

April 25, 2023

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25 generative agents walk into a room . . . 

It’s been called a “mini-Westworld” and “better than reality TV.” After Stanford and Google researchers created a video game–like town called Smallville, they populated it with 25 characters whose actions and dialogue were generated by AI. Each character—called a generative agent—was imbued with a unique persona based on a description of their occupation, relationship with other agents, and memories that the researchers entered into ChatGPT. (For example, “John Lin is a pharmacy shopkeeper who loves helping people and has a son studying music theory.”)

When let loose in Smallville, the 25 agents simulated what the researchers described as believable human behavior, even gossiping about fellow agents during a mayoral campaign in true human fashion. Agents were able to access memories of past experiences, reflect, develop new insights, and coordinate with one another. “We posit that . . . large language models can become a key ingredient for creating believable agents,” the researchers wrote. Creating non-playable characters (NPCs) with believable behavior, they wrote, “could enhance player experiences in games and interactive fictions by enabling emergent narratives and social interactions with the agents.” Cool, cool. But naturally, this also enables eyebrow-raising scenarios, including, for example, a company that’s interested in using this kind of technology to create avatars of your dead relatives in the metaverse. Stanford researchers say there are important ethical concerns that need to be addressed, like the risk of people forming relationships with generative agents “even when such relationships may not be appropriate.”

A family legacy.

Sierra Garcia, ’18, MA ’20, thought she understood her family’s Stanford connection. Her uncle Daniel, ’73, was a member of the first large class of Chicano students admitted to Stanford and the only one of his mother’s five sons to enroll in college. As Sierra understood it, he had dropped out his sophomore year for financial reasons. But last year, when she asked him why he’d left school, he offered a different story. Stanford had been an isolating, lonely place for him, he said. He’d hoped to find intellectual and philosophical rigor, to make a meaningful impact, but he didn’t find it as a student. Instead, he found everything he wanted in his federal work-study job at the newly formed campus childcare co-op, where he has taught for 53 years. “He didn’t say whether he would have stayed enrolled had Stanford better supported first-generation students back then, and I didn’t ask,” wrote Sierra. “I didn’t need to. I finally understood my family’s Stanford story.”

Love, love.

John McEnroe servingPhoto:

He won’t be rocking a bitchin’ sweatband and short shorts, but tennis legend John McEnroe, ’81, will return to the spotlight at Stanford in June—this time on the football field. McEnroe is Stanford’s 2023 commencement speaker, rounding out a career that has included winning seven Grand Slam singles titles, narrating Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, and writing the 2018 New York Times bestseller But Seriously. “McEnroe’s experience and transformation from tennis star to voice acting talent embody how the possibilities for Stanford students are truly limitless and that life is never a fixed path,” said the senior class presidents, who helped select him. “We are excited to hear his insights from both on and off the court.”

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s . . . a tiny satellite.

Just before midnight on April 14, members of the student group Stanford Space Initiative (SSI) watched as their satellite—the size of a Rubik’s Cube—hitched a ride on a SpaceX’s Transporter-7 mission. (Which, to be clear, is not the one that experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” RIP Starship.) Sapling 2 is now orbiting Earth while SSI students perform their first tests, including establishing control of the satellite and retrieving images from its onboard camera. The satellite was designed and built by SSI members in labs and machine shops on campus to help demonstrate that a functional satellite can be built by a collegiate community—making space more accessible. To that end, they have released open-source plans for Sapling 2 and kept construction costs to roughly $3,000 in the hopes that other universities will build off of their basic structure and aspire to more complex scientific missions. The students collaborated with SpaceX and ExoLaunch to ensure that Sapling 2 could be launched into space and then towed into orbit. “If there are people who have a passion for space, there is a possibility to build your own spacecraft and launch it while you’re here on this campus,” said Flynn Dreilinger, ’25, the former software lead for the project and a former co-president of SSI.

Americans are getting smarter about fake news. Maybe.

When researchers peeked inside voters’ web browsing habits leading up to the last two elections, they found a potentially encouraging trend. In 2016, 44.3 percent of Americans visited sites that repeatedly made false or misleading claims. During the 2020 election, that fell to 26.2 percent. All age groups visited fewer such sites and spent less time on them, although adults 65 and up were twice as likely to visit untrustworthy sites as people aged 18–29.

We might be growing more savvy. However, the researchers tracked only web browsing activity, which doesn’t capture information people might have consumed on social media platforms. “While one could interpret our findings as evidence that the problem of online misinformation is improving in some way, they could also be interpreted as evidence that the nature of the problem is changing,” the researchers wrote. If you’re looking to beef up your misinformation-spotting muscles, look no further.

But wait, there’s more.

It’s not back to the draw(ing board), but Stanford’s ResX system is about to evolve. To strike a better balance between community cohesion and student choice, the university is beginning a one-year pilot program that allows undergraduate students to apply for neighborhood reassignment without any house or room selection penalty.

“Why bike to class when you can couch?” That was the caption on the viral TikTok video of students zooming down Jane Stanford Way on a motorized sofa. The couch was the brainchild of the Stanford Moonshot Club, a student organization dedicated to “inclusive tinkering” and “fun, wacky projects.”

While some of you were scrambling to finish your taxes on April 18, we were watching the premiere of a new Netflix show starring author and financial adviser Ramit Sethi, ’04, MA ’05. How to Get Rich (based on his 2009 book, I Will Teach You to Be Rich) follows Sethi as he travels the country helping people master their finances. In 2021, Stanford magazine spoke with Sethi about how to be smart with your money.

The Feeding America network provides food to 1 in 7 Americans—totaling 5.2 billion meals last year. This spring, a three-year-long contracts project with Stanford Law School’s Organizations and Transactions Clinic, led by Jay Mitchell, ’80, resulted in a revamped 10-year agreement between Feeding America and its nearly 200 partner food banks as well as four contracts that govern how the various entities within the network navigate everything from product sourcing standards and disaster relief protocols to food safety, as well as—well, some legal stuff. “This has been one of the true high points of my almost 40 years in practice,” said Mitchell.

For people coping with pain, hypnosis is often a last resort. But David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a leading expert in clinical hypnosis, believes hypnotherapy should be a first resort, especially for those struggling with chronic pain. “What hypnosis really helps people do,” he told Stanford Medicine’s Scope blog, “is put aside preconceived ideas about their pain, their stress, or their insomnia, and approach it from a new point of view.”

We’re kind of flipping out about men’s gymnastics, which just earned its fourth consecutive NCAA championship, an achievement equaled by only one other men’s team in Stanford history (tennis, 1998). The gymnasts, 10 of whom are current or past national team members, view other countries—not other schools—as their rivals, and praise the culture created by 21-year head coach Thom Glielmi. Colt Walker, now a junior, remembers thinking, “OK . . . this is legit” when he arrived as a freshman.

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