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Computer learns to play game…by reading the manual

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Civilization V

Despite everything we learned from watching WarGames and The Matrix, computers are still a few clicks away from taking over the world. But thanks to some cunning researchers, they just got a little bit closer.

The geniuses at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have used an electronic instruction manual from Sid Meier's best-selling strategy game, Civilization II, to teach a computer how to read -- in any language -- and learn the complex intricacies of the nation-building video game.

Regina Barzilay, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering, and her graduate students S. R. K. Branavan and David Silver of University College London, augmented a machine-learning system that allowed the PC to achieve this advanced task. The computer's rate of victory jumped from 46 percent to 79 percent after reading the instructions. (And this occurred in an age when many video games don't even include instruction manuals any more.)

Clearly, the computer did much more than just read the instruction manual, which for a game like Civilization II can be extremely detailed. It actually learned how to read words from the manual and applied that knowledge to the gameplay environment, designing its own strategies for victory. In fact, the computer was able to reproduce 80 percent of the steps that a human reading the same instructions would execute. Given the open nature of the strategy game -- which has players guide the development of a city into an empire across centuries of human history -- that's pretty amazing.

Factor in that it didn't read an actual strategy guide, but an instruction manual that simply explains the rules of the game, and it's a stunning achievement that has real-world implications.

"Games are used as a test bed for artificial-intelligence techniques simply because of their complexity," said Branavan. "Every action that you take in the game doesn't have a predetermined outcome, because the game or the opponent can randomly react to what you do. So you need a technique that can handle very complex scenarios that react in potentially random ways."

Branavan said with further research, this technology could actually allow computers to help game developers program the single-player challenges of games like Civilization II (they're actually up to Civilization V these days) in the future. Currently, programmers have to write code to teach the computer strategies to play against a human opponent. Down the road, the computer could automatically create algorithms that perform better than those designed by humans.

So while Sid Meier's job is safe for now, that computer he's designing games for might soon put him out of work.
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