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A.I. Gets Game

Beyond artificial touch comes artificial intelligence (see “A.I. Reboots,” p. 46), another field influenced by video games. This influence can be traced back at least to attempts to program computers to play chess better in the late 1950s. Microsoft’s Drucker points out that A.I. techniques developed then have since become widely used commercially-for instance, in airline route planning. In the last decade, the availability of cheap computer power outside big labs, coupled with the hunger for ever more realistic games, has prompted game developers to begin tackling artificial-intelligence questions once reserved primarily for academics. “The game industry is full of really bright, really well-read folks who are also pretty fearless,” says A.I. researcher Bruce Blumberg, who heads the MIT Media Lab’s Synthetic Characters group. “The combination means they’re doing things that are really interesting.”

Game developers have focused especially on finding ways to simulate the behaviors of humans and animals. A prime example is the award-winning game Black and White. Created by British game developer Peter Molyneux, the game offers a 3-D world in which the player takes the part of a god and trains a massive monster from birth, teaching it to either maim or assist villagers who call out for the player’s help. The game quickly caught the attention of Michael Macedonia, chief scientist and technical director of the U.S. Army Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command, who keeps a close watch on the video game industry, frequently borrowing techniques for military simulations. “When Peter was doing a demo one time, and he started beating the ape into submission-the ape gets bruises-I had to remind myself that this was a video game,” says Macedonia.

Another case in point is Cybiko’s CyLandia game. The tiny program runs a complex economical model of the Cy-Bs’ world and can maintain several Cy-Bs with distinct personalities and social histories. The Cy-Bs also draw from software agent technology: the cartoon creatures perform most of their daily activities independently of their owners. “It’s really unlike other A.I. products out there: it’s thin, it’s small, and it’s robust,” says Cybiko president Don Wisniewski. In fact, the A.I. proved so effective that the company incorporated it into the Cybiko operating system, which other device manufacturers have expressed interest in licensing.

All this is not a one-way street, of course. The Media Lab’s Blumberg now regularly has his research group members attend game developer conferences-both to see what the gamers are up to and to share their own results. That interplay, he says, “is something that wouldn’t have happened five years ago.” The result is a synergy much like that found in the development of graphics, with each group furthering the work of the other.

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