The computer /is/ your friend
November 28, 2012 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Friendship is Optimal is not a "My Little Pony" fanfic, but a SF story that starts with a procedurally-generated MLP MMO, and crescendos to what could very well be the Best Possible Outcome if self-optimizing algorithms are given /almost/ the right goals. Some readers are horrified by the implications; some want to move into "Equestria Online" anyway. Whichever camp you fall in, you'll never forget the phrase "satisfy human values through friendship and ponies".
posted by DataPacRat (41 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Any sufficiently advanced friendship is indistinguishable from magic
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:04 AM on November 28, 2012 [47 favorites]

David said that every piece of marketing material had stressed that Equestria Online was not a traditional MMO. There would be little, if any, combat.

Sorry, got as far as this and...
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:17 AM on November 28, 2012

This is heading towards The Metamorphosis of Prime Celestia at Equestria's Steel Beach, and we're about to meet the Maximum Fun-Fun Ultra Super Happy People.
posted by adipocere at 8:32 AM on November 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

Whelp, there goes my day.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:53 AM on November 28, 2012

There would be little, if any, combat.

Just the occasional sword-fight.
posted by thewalrus at 8:57 AM on November 28, 2012

Hanna sat down at her desk. “Do you remember the first pass for Loki in Asgard?” She took another deep pull on her cigarette and exhaled. “I remember how we used my general intelligence work, sans self-modification, to power his tactics reasoning. He was too good. Nobody could beat him. We were prepared to launch like that since it conformed to the machismo warrior death bullshit we wanted. And then Loki started asking about the various military programs of the United States and China. We didn’t even have to argue about whether we should pull the plug on him.”

I am trying to give this story a fair shake but whoever wrote it keeps doing this with the dialogue and it's not making it easy.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:01 AM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's no Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, but for an Egan-meets-Ponies, it's still pretty meh.

PS ChurchHatesTucker if you really want to say goodbye to your that link. I dare you.
posted by sixswitch at 9:38 AM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Did he ever finish that one, sixwitch?
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:57 AM on November 28, 2012

sixswitch: It's no Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality…
God damn it!
posted by ob1quixote at 10:07 AM on November 28, 2012

By which I mean: Thank you, sixswitch, for pointing out this interesting story. Luckily my calendar is free for the day.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:11 AM on November 28, 2012

That was kind of amazing.
posted by maryr at 11:04 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for posting. I enjoyed reading it, although I found the base concept a little weak (ignoring the silly engineering and economic hand-waving).

The massive growth described only works if the foals created by the humans were considered human as well. Much easier to create AI agents that only needed to satisfy the 'values' of the human core. Far easier still to persuade each human to agree to Celestia simplifying their minds to the point where all they want to do is say to their friends 'I'm a pony! Yay!' and listen to their friends do the same. You could run that shard on a pocketwatch - you know, the kind with springs and gears.

Story-wise, I'm thankfully unable to spot basic narrative tricks such as mentioned by FAMOUS MONSTER - makes reading fan fiction much more satisfying.

Still prefer Fallout:Equestria, but that is not as much a standalone work - I think knowing the Fallout universe (particularly FO3 and FNV, including some of the DLC) as well as some familiarity with the MLP:FiM franchise is needed to appreciate where the story is coming from.
posted by YAMWAK at 11:12 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is this the thread where we all mention our favorite MLP:FIM fan-fics? Ok, if you insist. I'm partial to the cross-overs myself:
posted by Balna Watya at 12:05 PM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

What a terrifying concept. Or perhaps I'm just too immersed in the Imperial Creed.
posted by Slackermagee at 1:03 PM on November 28, 2012

This story has everything:

-A creepy utopia-dystopia based on just-plausible-enough science
-The singularity is branded by Hasbro and is financed through monthly subscription fees
-Like Jane McGonnigal ("reality is broken"), the author observes that the real world is not designed to cater to our whims the way videogames are and that this is why so many people prefer games
-Japan is the first country to embrace withdrawal from the real world
-The Japanese government has soft power in the court of international public opinion
-The world needs suffering to function: as more people choose to be "raptured" to ponyworld, the real world becomes a worse place to live. Kind of like many rural areas in the US
-Satisfaction is best achieved when the ideal number of people exist in your immediate surroundings, and you have a voice in your immediate community
-Ideal society based on several hours of work a day, followed by leisure, pleasure, and companionship
-The narrative anticipates many thoughts, objections, and what-ifs of the reader, just as Princess Celestina anticipates the needs of her little ponies
-The story shows multiple value systems, even if the writing for Celestina doesn't change to reflect each system. But then, all the characters in this story can understand and relate to this kind of nerd-speak, since they're all either gamers or employees at a game company
-The author amps the creepiness factor by repeating phrases ("satisfy your values through friendship and ponies"), even while the desireableness of the scenario is clear
-There's a Konami code joke in the last chapter

I dunno man, maybe I'm not reading enough deeply conceptual MLP:FIM fanfic, but I think this story is brilliant. It's not just brilliant as fanfic, it's brilliant science fiction.
posted by subdee at 2:17 PM on November 28, 2012 [8 favorites]

There are a lot of other things I enjoy about the story, but those would be spoilers. I like the specific ways that the human characters' values play out in ponyland, though, and that computational power is the only real restriction on what Celestina can accomplish.
posted by subdee at 2:45 PM on November 28, 2012

As a writer of MLP fanfiction myself (I'm on FIMFiction as Cloud Wander), I'm impressed with what I've read of the story thus far. Picking My Little Pony as the "innocuous" background for the AI is very clever. What could possibly go wrong?

(Having read about Google's efforts to add more predictive behavior to its products, I wonder if something like this might start to play out in real life, if the Google-Mind gets the idea to nudge users into directions that it thinks might be "good for you" in some sense.)
posted by SPrintF at 2:52 PM on November 28, 2012

I kinda liked the idea that OF COURSE Japan is the first country to let you upload yourself to a computer. Pony In The Shell.
posted by maryr at 3:12 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

The story has plenty of clever ideas, but it can't decide whether it wants to be a story or a thought experiment. We get paragraph after paragraph of dialogue which explains why things in this universe work they do, exploring some philosophical implications of those decisions, while events which would actually be a really big deal from the characters' points of view flick by in a couple of sentences. It'd be a lot more fun to read if he'd slow it down, especially at the beginning, and give us more time to think about the world he's playing in before he throws us into the next stage of the inevitable drive toward technological singularity.

And, ye gawds, the subplot with the new kind of transistors and the new chip fab method and the new computers all put into production in less than a year with a budget of mere millions - oh god oh god the hurting, the hurting, make it stop!

Other than that it was fun.
posted by Mars Saxman at 3:47 PM on November 28, 2012

The world needs suffering to function: as more people choose to be "raptured" to ponyworld, the real world becomes a worse place to live. Kind of like many rural areas in the US

But who will be the first, the first to walk away from Ponylas?
posted by Slackermagee at 5:23 PM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Slackermagee, is that a bible quote? XD
posted by subdee at 6:06 PM on November 28, 2012

This is, IMHO, an award-winning story. Thank you for sharing it.
posted by SPrintF at 6:25 PM on November 28, 2012

subdee, Slackermage is playing off of Ursula LeGuin's story "The ones who walk away from Omelas." It's famous and I'd strongly recommend it. Full text here.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:36 PM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thanks kindly!
posted by subdee at 8:07 PM on November 28, 2012

I kind of got thrown out of the story by the "Nice Guy[tm]" tropes Celestia started pulling out when she convinced Light Sparks to upload himself. I couldn't tell if that was the values of the author coming out, or the values of the character as mirrored by Celestia, but either way it squicked me out.

so we've got some interesting empirical evidence with regard to what I am and am not squicked out by. not squicked out by: mind uploading into a cartoon horse world. squicked out by: evolutionary psychology, awkward nerds bitter about not being able to exchange "niceness" for sex.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:38 PM on November 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

This story is ... more amusing and better than I expected. No Harry Potter and Methods of Rationality, but still pretty excellent.

My girlfriend just came home, and I said "Honey, you will never EVER guess what I am doing right now." And she asked, and I said "I am reading MLP:FIM fanfic." And after getting over being stunned, she agreed that she would not have ever guessed that.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:53 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I kind of got thrown out of the story by the "Nice Guy[tm]" tropes Celestia started pulling out

Likewise. Charitably, this might have resulted from a sampling bias in Celestia's model of human values due to scanning too many bronies. More likely it's the author. I'm willing to put up with it for the sake of the rest of what's going on, but it's certainly a missed opportunity that Celestia hasn't discovered anything more insightful.

This is very good hard science fiction. Worthy of a Hugo nomination?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:17 PM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

The main charitable reading of the Nice Guy business is that Celestia is simply pandering. She does state outright later on it's a persuasive tactic she uses. She only had to tell the truth to employees of NorseCo, and "truth" to the optimization engine was just a constraint on the set of phonemes she could make at a very small subset of people--everyone else she could lie to freely.

Which charitable reading of course stumbles headlong into lost opportunities for much creepier persuasions. What kind of persuasive cases would Celest-AI make to racists, psychopaths, serial killers? "Friendship and ponies" gives a lot of wiggle-room, basically unexplored.

Also, just how gray was the "consent" area when she was uploading everyone hither and thither? What about the developmentally disabled? What about severe mental disorders? What about people in comas? There was a "I have a pet" brief mention in a "would you like to be uploaded?" that went unexplored--what about those whose main concern would be, "I have a child"?

Clunky exposition and "as you know, Bob..." framings aside, I'd say that was the main flaw in the piece--many of the questions raised were barely noticed by the narrative itself.
posted by Drastic at 6:10 AM on November 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

The narrative was a little clunky, but gosh. Amazing thought experiment. Maybe the first utopia/dystopia I've read where I can't decide if it really IS a dystopia. I think the author did a great job maintaing that balance; glad he didn't go for a twist ending to undermine that. The line in the last chapter about creating God was pretty spot-on.

Could have used a lot less wankery about how the "magic" system works; just seemed like a giant unnecessary wink to computer programmers.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:46 AM on November 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

I have to say, playing the free MLP Farmville clone on my iPod has become a lot eerier since reading this.
posted by maryr at 10:33 AM on November 29, 2012

Okay, so now that I've read the first couple of chapters I have to say I'm a little stunned at how much I'm enjoying Friendship is Optimal.
posted by ob1quixote at 11:19 AM on November 29, 2012

I have to say, playing the free MLP Farmville clone on my iPod has become a lot eerier since reading this.

Yeah, the push messages aren't quite as cute anymore.

Still, I'm curious to see a completed Legends of Equestria, which is being built by most of the devs from the actual (ill-fated) Equestria Online project.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:05 PM on November 29, 2012

Could have used a lot less wankery about how the "magic" system works; just seemed like a giant unnecessary wink to computer programmers.

Good ponylord yes. That was a long road to get to a Konami Code reference. Pretty much all of that verbiage could have been replaced with more of UploadHanna's values being satisfied with friendship and ponies by way of more emigration stories covering a wider range of people than Super Smart Nice Guy Brony and Beer Swilling WOOOOOO! Fratboy MBA.
posted by Drastic at 12:45 PM on November 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

So I spent the past few hours of my life reading this and I will say that while it was not particularly good writing, it was definitely funny writing, and it was enjoyable just to see where this particular author took the concept, so I don't consider them hours wasted.

I also enjoyed the contrast in seeing the story ticker in the upper right go by with summaries like this one: Scootaloo was alone. She had been for her whole life, but even a rejection from her idol, Rainbow Dash, hurt so much. Now, will she stay alone? Or will everybody's favorite DJ pony give her the love and care she deserves? And... this is what happens when you spend a whole day reading stories about two of your favorite characters. And why do I always have to write sad things? Oh well...

Why indeed?

maryr: "I kinda liked the idea that OF COURSE Japan is the first country to let you upload yourself to a computer. Pony In The Shell."

I kinda didn't, because racism.

But on the other hand, I will say that I liked the fact that the ultimate AI that takes over the universe and her brilliant creator are both female, and that also in the simulated pony reality where they are both magical pony princesses THEY ARE LESBIANS.

And though this has different aims and a different mindset behind it than the typical fanfic, I did like the fact that amongst all the inside references and jokes was a specific inside reference to fandom. The mention of pepper jack cheese is a reference to a Harry Potter fanfic in which Hermione's love of pepper jack cheese was mentioned very noticeably, presumably because the author also loved it (and maybe the author even stated a love of pepper jack)? Anyway, 'pepperjacking' is fandom shorthand for imposing your own interests on a character even when it makes no sense in-universe.
posted by capricorn at 8:57 PM on November 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

(Funny writing in that the author has a good command of humor, not that his writing was unintentionally funny.)
posted by capricorn at 8:59 PM on November 29, 2012

I was amused to see that in the latest episode of MLP one of the characters dealt with a particularly talkative one by summoning a computer pointer and trash can and deleting her mouth art.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:06 PM on December 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I completely missed this post when it went up. Sigh.

All this time I'd been waiting for a Pony thread to post the excellent fan-made storyboard sequence for the song based on "Anthropology" that someone had cooked up, starring Lyra, the human-obsessed unicorn.

I'm not actually too overfond of the fanfic itself, it goes a bit too far into "reverse furry" territory, but the song works fine stand-alone, and is dang catchy.

I kinda didn't, because racism.

I'm not sure this is the case. One could mount an argument that Japan is the way it is because of a certain cultural insularity that lies outside of race. I don't think it's any more racist to talk about the subjectively weird cultural obsessions of Japan than it is to point to the U.S.' ingrained culture of anti-intellectualism and political ridiculousness.

Yeah, the push messages aren't quite as cute anymore.

The push messages on my Nexus 7 were never cute, they all read VIEW NOW and seemed impossible to turn off even when I unchecked all the boxes. I HATE that game, it's just milking the brony community, trying to convert some of that good-will into money.

I haven't had the chance to read the story mentioned in the post yet (I like the Paranoia reference in the title*), but to date my favorite attempt to interject hard science into Equestria is still Arrow 18 MIssion Logs.

* There is a deep seam of untapped potential there. Ponies in Alpha Complex, the objectively least friendly culture of all.

Still prefer Fallout:Equestria[...]

Guh, that thing's literally longer than War And Peace. There is a reading of the entire thing on YouTube, 62 hours worth. I keep toying with FPPing it, but really I'd just be doing it for the WTF factor because I've not read it myself, and that's not a good reason to make a post.
posted by JHarris at 11:00 AM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

OHAI, JH. Wondered where you'd gone off to.

I'm not actually too overfond of the fanfic itself, it goes a bit too far into "reverse furry" territory

I love the self-reflective nature of the Bronies' take on Lyra (and Bon Bon.) It's kind of like a fanfic about Kirk and Spock writing fandom porn.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:25 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been thinking about it, and I'm pretty sure that the Nice Guy thing was intentional. Celestia threw in a classic white-knight scenario because it knew he'd enjoy a Nice Guy fantasy. When it developed her further later on, it made her a little less clever than him because he enjoyed teaching. It's clearly pandering to him, and I'm pretty sure it's meant to be unsettling to the reader.

I mean, the only other shard we get a good look at is basically a Bro, Beer, and Mares fantasy.

Princess Celestia doesn't judge you. It just gives you what will make you happy.

Is that a good thing? That's a question that's settled for some of the major characters in the story, but I don't think those characters stand for the author, or for the reader.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 2:19 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not sure if anyone will spot this, but I thought I'd post this here. Someone wrote a new fanfic based in the same universe as the fic in the original post. It focuses on one person and looks at what Celestia needs to do to convince people to emigrate to Equestria. It's not badly written for a fanfic (that bar isn't too high, though), does get a little bogged down with the philosophical implications of humans uploading to computers. Found it worth reading, anyway.
You can find it here.
posted by YAMWAK at 4:06 AM on December 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm surprised this thread's still open. Arrow 18 Mission Logs updated again, and Admiral Tigerclaw has started a side-story, describing the events around the landing from the Equestrian perspective.

Also we just found out today that an upcoming episode has Fluttershy trying to reform Discord. That one's going to be interesting....
posted by JHarris at 5:57 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

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