We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Computer Learns to Take Over Virtual Worlds by Doing What Most of Us Don't: Reading the Manual

By Joseph Castro
Jul 14, 2011 12:53 AMNov 19, 2019 11:54 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Screenshot of Civilization IV, a later version of the game that MIT's computer played.

What’s the News: Many video gamers scoff at the idea of actually reading the instruction manual for a game. But a manual can not only teach you how to play a game, it can also give you the basics of language—that is, if you’re a machine-learning

computer. Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab

have now designed a computer system that can learn the meaning of certain words

by playing complex games like Civilization II

and comparing on-screen information to the game’s instruction manual. How the Heck:

  • The researchers, lead by computer scientist Regina Barzilay, began by giving their machine-learning system very basic knowledge about Civilization II, such as the various actions it can take (moving the cursor, clicking, etc.). The computer also had access to the words and other information that popped up on-screen—though it didn’t understand what the text and objects meant—and it knew when it won or lost a game. Here, the computer’s behavior was mostly random and it was able to win 46 percent of the time.

  • The researchers then augmented the computer system so that it could use the game’s manual to develop strategies. So, when words like "river" now popped up during game play, the computer searched for those words in the instructions and analyzed the surrounding text. With this information, the computer made assumptions about what actions the words corresponded to, giving greater weight to ideas that consistently produced good results and trashing those associated with poor results. Its winning percentage jumped to 79 percent.

What’s the Context:

  • Two years ago, Barzilay conducted a similar experiment where she had her machine-learning system install software on a Windows PC by using instructions available on Microsoft’s website. The system carried out 80 percent of the steps that a person using the same instructions would.

The Future Holds:

  • For most complex games that allow players to compete against computer opponents, programmers must develop and code various strategies for the computer to follow. The researchers say that programmers will soon be able to use their system to automatically create those algorithms (via MIT News).

  • The team is currently trying to affix robotic systems with their "meaning-inferring algorithms."

(via MIT News


Image: Flickr/yoppy

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.