Documenting the Coming Singularity

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Bots Get Smart

Spectrum - December 2008, by Jonathan Schaeffer, Vadim Bulitko, and Michael Buro

Can video games breathe new life into AI research?

You’re following a gloomy corridor into a large boiler room, dimly lit by a flickering fluorescent lamp and echoing with the rhythms of unseen machinery. Three enemy soldiers suddenly appear on a catwalk high above the floor. They split up, one of them laying down suppressive fire, which forces you to take cover. Although you shoot back, the attackers still manage to creep forward behind a curtain of smoke and flying debris.

Moments later, a machine gun rings out, and you are cut down in a shower of bullets. Then, as you lie dying, you glimpse the soldier who flanked you from behind while his two buddies drew your attention.

Thankfully, it was only a video game, so in fact you’re not mortally wounded. Still, your ego might well be bruised, because you were not only outgunned but also outsmarted by artificial intelligence (AI).

The game is called F.E.A.R. , short for First Encounter Assault Recon, and its use of AI, along with its impressive graphics, are its prime attractions. The developer, Monolith Productions of Kirkland, Wash., released it in 2005 to rave reviews, including the GameSpot Web site’s Best Artificial Intelligence award. Such recognition means a lot to the game’s creators, who face stiff competition in what has become a multibillion-dollar industry.

The game is a far cry from the traditional diversions that AI researchers like ourselves have long studied, such as chess and checkers. Whereas the goal in the past was to write computer programs capable of beating expert players at such board games, now the metric of success for AI is whether it makes video games more entertaining.

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