[Link] Computer improves its Civilization II gameplay by reading the manual

post by Kaj_Sotala · 2011-07-13T12:00:30.053Z · score: 37 (37 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 5 comments

Press release

Computers are great at treating words as data: Word-processing programs let you rearrange and format text however you like, and search engines can quickly find a word anywhere on the Web. But what would it mean for a computer to actually understand the meaning of a sentence written in ordinary English — or French, or Urdu, or Mandarin?

One test might be whether the computer could analyze and follow a set of instructions for an unfamiliar task. And indeed, in the last few years, researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have begun designing machine-learning systems that do exactly that, with surprisingly good results.

In 2009, at the annual meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL), researchers in the lab of Regina Barzilay, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering, took the best-paper award for a system that generated scripts for installing a piece of software on a Windows computer by reviewing instructions posted on Microsoft’s help site. At this year’s ACL meeting, Barzilay, her graduate student S. R. K. Branavan and David Silver of University College London applied a similar approach to a more complicated problem: learning to play “Civilization,” a computer game in which the player guides the development of a city into an empire across centuries of human history. When the researchers augmented a machine-learning system so that it could use a player’s manual to guide the development of a game-playing strategy, its rate of victory jumped from 46 percent to 79 percent.

Starting from scratch

“Games are used as a test bed for artificial-intelligence techniques simply because of their complexity,” says Branavan, who was first author on both ACL papers. “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.”

Moreover, Barzilay says, game manuals have “very open text. They don’t tell you how to win. They just give you very general advice and suggestions, and you have to figure out a lot of other things on your own.” Relative to an application like the software-installing program, Branavan explains, games are “another step closer to the real world.”

The extraordinary thing about 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 initially, its behavior is almost totally random. But as it takes various actions, different words appear on screen, and it can look for instances of those words in the instruction set. It can also search the surrounding text for associated words, and develop hypotheses about what actions those words correspond to. Hypotheses that consistently lead to good results are given greater credence, while those that consistently lead to bad results are discarded.

Proof of concept

In the case of software installation, the system was able to reproduce 80 percent of the steps that a human reading the same instructions would execute. In the case of the computer game, it won 79 percent of the games it played, while a version that didn't rely on the written instructions won only 46 percent. The researchers also tested a more-sophisticated machine-learning algorithm that eschewed textual input but used additional techniques to improve its performance. Even that algorithm won only 62 percent of its games.

“If you’d asked me beforehand if I thought we could do this yet, I’d have said no,” says Eugene Charniak, University Professor of Computer Science at Brown University. “You are building something where you have very little information about the domain, but you get clues from the domain itself.”

Charniak points out that when the MIT researchers presented their work at the ACL meeting, some members of the audience argued that more sophisticated machine-learning systems would have performed better than the ones to which the researchers compared their system. But, Charniak adds, “it’s not completely clear to me that that’s really relevant. Who cares? The important point is that this was able to extract useful information from the manual, and that’s what we care about.”

Most computer games as complex as “Civilization” include algorithms that allow players to play against the computer, rather than against other people; the games’ programmers have to develop the strategies for the computer to follow and write the code that executes them. Barzilay and Branavan say that, in the near term, their system could make that job much easier, automatically creating algorithms that perform better than the hand-designed ones.

But the main purpose of the project, which was supported by the National Science Foundation, was to demonstrate that computer systems that learn the meanings of words through exploratory interaction with their environments are a promising subject for further research. And indeed, Barzilay and her students have begun to adapt their meaning-inferring algorithms to work with robotic systems.

The actual paper

Abstract

This paper presents a novel approach for leveraging automatically extracted textual knowledge to improve the performance of control applications such as games. Our ultimate goal is to enrich a stochastic player with highlevel guidance expressed in text. Our model jointly learns to identify text that is relevant to a given game state in addition to learning game strategies guided by the selected text. Our method operates in the Monte-Carlo search framework, and learns both text analysis and game strategies based only on environment feedback. We apply our approach to the complex strategy game Civilization II using the official game manual as the text guide. Our results show that a linguistically-informed game-playing agent significantly outperforms its language-unaware counterpart, yielding a 27% absolute improvement and winning over 78% of games when playing against the builtin AI of Civilization II.

The team has been rather exemplary when it comes to scientific openness: "The code, data and complete experimental setup for this work are available at http://groups.csail.mit.edu/rbg/code/civ ." And although I haven't downloaded it because it's a 1,1 gigabyte file, the page appears to contain a virtual machine with everything you need to actually run the experiment. I was expecting to a see a bunch of different, poorly documented files that you would have a hell of a time running if you didn't have exactly the same system as the researchers, so this was quite a pleasant surprise. (Of course, if I downloaded the VM it could be that it's still exactly that bad. :)

5 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Nisan · 2011-07-13T17:23:48.222Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for linking to the academic paper!

comment by [deleted] · 2011-07-14T12:00:46.779Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wonder how hard it would be to modify this to improve the AI of a different game.

comment by DanPeverley · 2011-07-18T00:50:45.612Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

78%? Depending on the difficulty, that could either be equivalent to an eight year old child or a dedicated gamer. I wonder how long it will take until they get a computer that can beat Koreans at Starcraft :)

comment by Thomas · 2011-07-14T15:33:00.069Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Looks a bit (or more) like Watson. This class of algorithms are unexpectedly powerful and not only in the IBM domain.

Potentially useful all over the place and I am quite happy about them. A very good work under way.

comment by keefe · 2012-04-11T04:29:23.530Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was a civ junkie for a long time... one interesting thing is that the manual had structured data representations of everything in the game. It was also deadly exploitable, you would usually just not use certain strategies because they're boring.