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article imageOp-Ed: Computers learn languages from game manuals- And win more often?

By Paul Wallis     Jul 13, 2011 in Technology
MIT researchers set a computer program a test- Start a game with no idea of how to play it, with only the game manual as a reference. The game was the famous Civilization strategy game. The computer played, learned and won.
All gamers will appreciate that achievement. Civilization is a multi-level game, and at its higher levels, it’s a very tough game. The artificial intelligence cheats and does itself a lot of favours; ask anyone who’s ever played at the top levels. For the computer, however, stuck with the manual as a reference, it’s no minor accomplishment. There was one other little complication- It had to learn the meanings of the language to read the manual.
Science Daily explains:
The extraordinary thing about (researchers) Barzilay and Branavan's system is that it begins with virtually no prior knowledge about the task it's intended to perform or the language in which the instructions are written. It has a list of actions it can take, like right-clicks or left-clicks, or moving the cursor; it has access to the information displayed on-screen; and it has some way of gauging its success, like whether the software has been installed or whether it wins the game. But it doesn't know what actions correspond to what words in the instruction set, and it doesn't know what the objects in the game world represent.
So the computer starts off from a position which is to put it mildly a bit cryptic. This is virtually a “learning sphere”, not a “learning curve”. The computer learns to discard actions which lead to bad results, and favour those with positive results.
Computers usually figure out some way to irritate gamers, and in this case the computer won 79% of its games using the manual, but only 46% in programs not using the manual. Anyone who’s ever read, or survived reading, a Civilization manual will appreciate that:
(a) Winning 79% of games on Civilization is no trivial achievement
(b) The bloody thing obviously benefited from reading the manual, and didn’t even get eyestrain reading those damn fonts.
The article doesn’t say what civilization level the computer achieved, which is rather a pity. My best is a Civilization rating of about 300%, which is a sort of middle level/ good international standard. If the computer got higher than that, I'll sue. I may even sue myself.
There are other ramifications, notably in robotics, which is where some of the algorithms derived from this exercise are heading. Learning the meaning of language and how to interpret and apply those meanings could mean that people (even gamers) will finally have someone to talk to other than human beings. Who knows, the human race might bother to develop a vocabulary again so that it can talk to its computers? Well, it could happen… couldn’t it?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about machine learning software, civilization computer game, Artificial intelligence, computers learning languages, Association for Computational Linguistics
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