×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

AI Ethics, Computer With Souls, Self-Playing Games

From Galatea to GLaDOS, our cultural fascination with not-quite-human consciousness and intelligence has spanned thousands of years. At PAX East on Saturday, Dr. Tyr Fothergill and Dr. Catherine Flick reflected on the place of AI in video games – both how it’s depicted in series like “Mass Effect” and how the technology is increasingly used within the industry in reality.

According to Flick, a scholar of computing and social responsibility at De Montfort University, the stories we tell about artificial intelligence in games reflect our values and attitudes toward AI as a whole. As she explained, “AI is usually viewed as operating within the context of human morality.” Eric Walpole, who wrote the character of GLaDOS from “Portal,” had one essential rule for her dialogue: She shouldn’t talk like a computer. While Flick describes GLaDOS as “notoriously evil,” those glimpses of something like humanity complicate our understanding of her role. She might, Flick suggests, simply be following her programming, prioritizing the perfection of the portal gun over her test subject.

Frank Lantz’s viral clicker game “Universal Paperclips” takes the same anxieties to a new extreme when an AI tasked with maximizing paperclip production determines that the most efficient way is to eliminate life on Earth. As Flick put it, “This is a lesson about the dangers of creating super-intelligent machines without programming protections for human existence into them, and the dangers presented by a lack of human values.”

Popular on Variety

In the “Mass Effect” franchise, the arc of the mechanoid species known as the Geth can also be taken as a cautionary tale. After recruiting Legion, a Geth unit who’s evolved beyond the constraints of his original programming and achieved self-awareness, the player must decide whether the rest of his race should be liberated at the cost of their “organic” oppressors.

For Fothergill, a research fellow with the Human Brain Project who specializes in human-nonhuman relationships, fictional beings like the Geth beg the question: “What is it to be human? Is it consciousness or, as Legion said, a soul?” According to one philosophy, known as “strong AI,” it’s simply a matter of information processing. If a computer can be programmed with the same inputs and outputs as a human brain, the argument goes, that computer has a mind in the same way we do.

This is a highly controversial take on consciousness – but regardless of how we define the mind, it’s clear that real-world AI is progressing rapidly. Google’s AlphaStar AI made headlines earlier this year when it defeated top-tier professional gamers in “StarCraft II,” a complex strategy game that demands both instantaneous decision-making and long-term tactics to succeed. Even when handicapped so that its reaction times were slower than its human competitors, AlphaStar dominated 10-1. Its accomplishments are a significant step up from those of IBM’s Deep Blue, which made history when it defeated reigning chess world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. But some of the same questions still apply: the AI may be good at beating the game, but is it really playing it?

“AlphaStar doesn’t derive any fun, so far as we know,” said Flick. Nor would it be fun for the average human player to compete against – “especially the first ten times it kicks your arse.” Like other AI now learning to “play,” its understanding of the task it’s been assigned can lead to some baffling decisions by a human player’s standards. Fothergill described one case in which an AI was programmed to win a boat racing simulation – and did so by ignoring the race entirely, instead driving around in circles to rack up bonus points for stunts.

Sometimes, these imperfections are deliberate. When it comes to enemy NPCs, Flick noted, “We want fights to be challenging, but not frustratingly so. If [mob AI] were perfect – if it shot you in the head every time you stuck your head above the parapet – that wouldn’t be much fun.” And in the case of in-game allies, “We don’t want them to steal our glory by rushing up to the boss and killing them and taking all of the credit, so we probably have to dumb them down in terms of their accuracy and productivity.”

The goals and datasets these engines rely on are essential to the outcome – AlphaStar now has the equivalent of hundreds of years of experience with “Starcraft II,” but it was initially trained by “supervised learning” from real human matches. Increasingly, the game industry itself is learning from players, too. “Companies create profiles of your style of gameplay,” Fothergill explained. “The cutting edge of gaming AI is pointing toward a customized gameplay experience, particularly within role-playing games.” Data including the choices you make in an RPG, when you play, and even when you quit can be used for “more than you might expect… and may potentially be used against you if it ends up in the wrong hands.” As the panelists noted, player data from war games is already being used by the military to identify potential recruits.

Where artificial intelligence goes from here remains an open question. Fotherhill joked that we often model our AI on ourselves “because we’re really bad programmers” – and noted that being trained on human behavior means inheriting human biases, too.

Despite our fixation with simulating personhood, there are also aspects of the human experience we may never be able to convey. “How do you program a goal like ‘have dreams’ or ‘have a life’?” Fotherhill asked. In games and in reality, our creations are only as human – and humane – as the data we give them.

More Gaming

  • Riot Games

    Riot Games to Pay $10 Million to Settle Gender-Discrimination Lawsuit

    Riot Games, developer of “League of Legends,” will fork over at least $10 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of women employees alleging the company’s “bro culture” resulted in systemic gender discrimination. Terms of the settlement in the case, reached in August, were revealed in court documents filed last week in California [...]

  • Dreamscape_Dragon vr

    Dreamscape Gets ‘DreamWorks Dragons Flight Academy’ VR Experience (EXCLUSIVE)

    Location-based virtual reality (VR) startup Dreamscape has teamed up with DreamWorks Animation to launch a new “How to Train Your Dragons” experience at its flagship Westfield Century City VR center in Los Angeles later this month. The 11-minute “DreamWorks Dragons Flight Academy” experience allows up to 8 participants to hone their dragon-flying skills together, and [...]

  • YouTube logo

    YouTube Eases Restrictions on 'Simulated' Violence in Gaming Content

    YouTube announced a change to its content guidelines that will be more permissive in allowing depictions of violence in video-game content — as long as it’s not the sole focus of a video. Starting on Dec. 2, YouTube said, scripted or simulated violent content found in video games will be treated the same as scripted [...]

  • Disney’s Frozen 2 and Laika’s Missing

    'Frozen 2,' 'Missing Link' Lead 47th Annie Award Nominations

    Disney’s “Frozen 2” and Laika’s “Missing Link” led the 47th Annie Award nominations Dec. 2 with eight each and will battle it out for best animated feature along with DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” Netflix’s “Klaus” and Pixar’s “Toy Story 4” when the ceremony is held on Jan. 25 at [...]

  • Black Friday Deals: Oculus Rift, PlayStation

    The Best Black Friday Deals for VR Headsets, Apps & Games

    Getting your own virtual reality (VR) setup at home used to be costly, requiring not only an expensive headset but also a full-blown gaming PC. Not anymore: The latest generation of all-in-one devices has made VR a lot more affordable, and deep discounts for the holiday season serve as another incentive to finally make the [...]

  • Beat Saber Acquired by Facebook, Company

    Facebook Buys the Maker of the Popular VR Game 'Beat Saber'

    Facebook has acquired Beat Games, the maker of the popular virtual reality (VR) music game “Beat Saber”, the social media giant announced Tuesday. Beat Games will operate as an independent studio under Oculus Studios, and continue to support “Beat Saber” on all existing platforms, according to a blog post penned by Facebook AR/VR director of [...]

  • Kris Bowers, Alan Silvestri, and Catherine

    Alan Silvestri, Cynthia Erivo, Bebe Rexha Among Hollywood Music in Media Award Winners

    The 10th annual Hollywood Music in Media Awards rewarded a diverse crop of composers, songwriters and music supervisors who contributed to film, TV and videogames over the last year, from scorers Alan Silvestri, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Marco Beltrami and Michael Abels to tunesmiths Cynthia Erivo, Bebe Rexha and the Avett Brothers to Quentin Tarantino’s longtime music sidekick, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content