0

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Human gamers have to be able to think on their feet to overcome the odds, and now the US military is using that for their own advantage.

 

Interested in the Exponential Future? Join our XPotential Community, future proof yourself with courses from our XPotential Academyconnect, watch a keynote, or browse my blog.

Recently I discussed how researchers were training robots using telepathy, and now researchers elsewhere in the US have kicked that idea up a notch – several notches in fact.

In the 1984 movie The Last Starfighter tells the story of a teenager whose calling in life seems to be nothing more than to play arcade games. Fortunately, he’s spectacularly good at it. The game he’s best at is a video game called, as the movie’s title would have it, Starfighter. In it, the player must defend their homestead, The Frontier, from the perils of Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada by way of a series of wireframe laser battles.

 

RELATED
New EU report recommends Universal Basic Income for all 27 member states

 

But there’s a twist. It turns out that Starfighter isn’t simply a game; it’s actually a kind of test. The war with Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada is real, and the arcade game — with its demands on rapid-fire reaction times on the part of players — is a stealth recruiting tool, intended to seek out the best of the best to become genuine starfighters.

More than 35 years after The Last Starfighter hit theaters, engineers from the University at Buffalo, New York, Artificial Intelligence Institute have received funding from DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to carry out research that’s… well, let’s just say that it’s extremely similar. They have built a real-time strategy game, currently unnamed, that’s reminiscent of existing games like StarCraft or Stellaris in style. In this game, players must use resources to build units and defeat enemies; manipulating large numbers of agents on-screen to complete their mission objectives.

 

RELATED
Hawaii becomes first US state to pass a bill supporting Universal Basic Income

 

But this isn’t any ordinary gaming experience. When people play the University at Buffalo’s new strategy game, they first have to agree to be hooked up to Electroencephalogram (EEG) technology so that the game’s designers can record their brain activity. As they play, their eye movements are also tracked by way of special ultra high speed cameras to see exactly how they respond to what they’re doing. This information, which can be teased out using machine learning algorithms, will then be used to develop new algorithms that can help train large numbers of future robots. In particular, the hope is that these insights into complex decision-making can improve coordination between large teams of autonomous air and ground robots in battle – you know, should the game be “brought to life.”

 

 

For anyone who grew up on movies like The Last Starfighter, this will seem strangely familiar. Although there’s a twist here, too. In The Last Starfighter the goal is to train humans to have the kind of lightning fast reflexes that would normally be found in a machine. In this case, it’s different. The purpose of the University at Buffalo’s new gaming project isn’t to make players more machine-like. Just the opposite, in fact. It’s all about trying to make machines that think more like humans.

 

RELATED
Future quantum computers could crack 2048 bit RSA encryption in 8 hours

 

“We’re trying to recruit [participants] who have strong gaming experience,” said Souma Chowdhury, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Chowdhury is one of the lead investigators on the project.

“I myself do not have gaming experience,” he said. “I’m not a computer gamer at all. But many of our students are into games like crazy.”

Chowdhury’s own area of interest is swarm intelligence, a branch of computer science dating back to the late 1980s. Swarm intelligence is all about the collective behaviour of decentralized, self-organized systems, both virtual and robotic, and it’s an area that’s heating up with multiple breakthroughs recently.

“It’s a real hot topic,” he said. “It’s becoming known that there are a lot of different applications which could be done by not using a single $1 million robot, but rather a large swarm of simpler, cheaper robots. These could be ground-based, air-based, or a combination of those two approaches.”

 

RELATED
Indian surgeon completes world's first remote robotic human heart surgery

 

Some researchers in swarm robotics try and create swarms that can carry out complex procedures by hand-crafting the actions of every agent involved; the way you might coach each member of a dance troop so they can master a complex routine. Put them all together and you’ll get something that looks like emergent collaboration, although it’s actually a collection of individuals doing their own thing. The idea of using modern machine learning artificial intelligence is that it could give robot swarms the ability to more autonomously function as a meaningful collective.

But that’s easier said than done. Training one robot to do something requires a significant amount of training. Training a swarm, potentially with varying abilities, to complete tasks in complex, uncertain environments is a whole lot trickier. It means running tens of thousands of simulations, making the process extremely time-consuming and expensive. The idea driving this new project is that watching humans play the game will make it easier for machines to learn.

“Imagine walking into a classroom where there’s no teacher, and saying ‘let’s learn algebra,’” Chowdhury said. “You can learn just using exercises and textbooks. But it’s going to take a lot more time. If you have a teacher you can follow it’ll make it faster. In this case, we want to see how humans play this game and then use that to significantly speed up the AI in learning the behaviour. Before it would be necessary to run 10,000 simulations to learn. Now we only need to run perhaps 1,000 simulations and augment this with data from humans.”

 

RELATED
Mine hunting drones can now detect mines from the air

 

The researchers believe that, by observing the type of tactical or strategic decisions humans take when they play a strategy game, it will be possible to work out which features and events motivate these actions.

“The project is ongoing, at a pretty aggressive pace,” Chowdhury said. “We are around the halfway mark.”

At present, they’ve yet to start the data-gathering phase of the project, although Chowdhury has a good idea of the format that it will take. The plan is to carry out experiments with around 25 participants. Each participant will play between six and seven games with different randomised settings and levels of complexity. Unlike games such as StarCraft, which can last for hours, in this case each game will go on for only last only between five and ten minutes. That will be sufficient to measure decision-making strategies, and for these features of interest to be extracted using algorithms and scripts developed by the team.

“At this point, it is difficult to comment on the amount or size of data that will be eventually collected,” Chowdhury said. However, the aim is reportedly to eventually scale up to 250 aerial and ground robots, working in highly complex situations. One example might be dealing with sudden loss of visibility due to smoke. The team plans to develop algorithms, modelled on human behaviour, that will allow them to adapt to challenges such as this.

 

RELATED
MIT's latest Human-AI hybrid cybersecurity platform blitzes trials

 

“Humans can come up with very unique strategies that an AI might not ever learn,” he continued – and vice versa. “A lot of the hype we see in AI are in applications that are relatively deterministic environments. But in terms of contextual reasoning in a real environment to get stuff done? That’s still at a nascent stage.”

In Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the Nobel-winning economist and psychologist describes two different modes of thought. The first system is fast and instinctive, the kind of thing we might call intuition. That might be locating the source of a specific sound, completing the phrase “war and…” or, yes, blasting Ko-Dan ships out of the air (or lack thereof) in Starfighter. The second system is slower, more deliberate, more logical. It’s centered on conscious thinking — which in this case might very well refer to forming strategies.

Chowdhury doesn’t cite Kahneman’s work when he discusses the project. But it’s hard not to be reminded of it. As he points out, machines are already capable of an impressive number of autonomous features. A $10,000 drone possesses some impressive smarts when it comes to navigating between locations. The same is true with agents in a strategy game. Units are often governed by low level rules which allow them to react to their surroundings. That could mean attacking or defending if they are confronted by an enemy. It might also mean being able to maintain formations as they move around the map. But in both cases what’s missing is the overarching strategy needed to execute tasks.

 

RELATED
A US startup just built a giant centrifuge to fling rockets into space

 

“You don’t need a human to do low level control, controlling each agent,” Chowdhury said. “That’s not what we’re interested in. They’re not controlling every single robot and where they’re going. The human role is more that of a supervisor or a tactician. A good analogy would be that, in a disaster response environment, you have a supervisor. They might have a team of 100 rescuers working under them. There’s a hierarchy, but the supervisor does not tell each of those team members exactly what they should do. The rescuers make a lot of independent decisions, but the supervisor creates the overall tactics. That’s what we want to build.”

If Chowdhury and his team get their way, the killer robot swarms of tomorrow will be a whole lot smarter – and they’ll have gamers and their brainwaves to thank for it.

Source: University of Buffalo

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers” and a “Young Kurzweil,” is the founder and CEO of the World Futures Forum and the 311 Institute, a global Futures and Deep Futures consultancy working between the dates of 2020 to 2070, and is an award winning futurist, and author of “Codex of the Future” series. Regularly featured in the global media, including AP, BBC, Bloomberg, CNBC, Discovery, RT, Viacom, and WIRED, Matthew’s ability to identify, track, and explain the impacts of hundreds of revolutionary emerging technologies on global culture, industry and society, is unparalleled. Recognised for the past six years as one of the world’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an international speaker who helps governments, investors, multi-nationals and regulators around the world envision, build and lead an inclusive, sustainable future. A rare talent Matthew’s recent work includes mentoring Lunar XPrize teams, re-envisioning global education and training with the G20, and helping the world’s largest organisations envision and ideate the future of their products and services, industries, and countries. Matthew's clients include three Prime Ministers and several governments, including the G7, Accenture, Aon, Bain & Co, BCG, Credit Suisse, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deloitte, E&Y, GEMS, Huawei, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, Lego, McKinsey, PWC, Qualcomm, SAP, Samsung, Sopra Steria, T-Mobile, and many more.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *