Saturday, April 2, 2016

Games as a testbed for research - Why?

People usually ask me about my research, when I say I'm doing research on computer games, I can feel their disapproval (though no one has actually express it out load). I can totally understand their reaction; I'm not a game developer so I'm not really making games, I'm not doing pure Artificial Intelligence (AI) so I'm actually contributing to making existing games any better and I'm not working for the industry so my work, so far, has no direct tangible influence.

I have actually been thinking about these issues for a while now and here is my attempt to clear this misunderstanding and clarify why what I'm doing is really interesting and more people should do it.

I have been working for a while (more than five years! time really flies fast) on player experience modeling (PEM) and procedural content generation (PCG), trying to come up with ways to improve and connect both. So far, I have made a progress, but it still fascinates me how little we know about human decision making and the unique ways in which people interact with digital media on one hand, and the sophistication of the process of creating games, on the other hand.

Creating games to me is very much like writing a novel. Almost everyone can write, but not everyone can come up with something interesting that others would like to read, and few can write something that appeals to a wide range of audience (something like the Harry Potter novel).

Understanding how human come up with a good story is hard, and building a program that can imitate this process is even harder (it would have been already done if it is not). Same applies for creating games. The exception is, if you want to make a good game, you can't rely on the imagination of the reader to setup the stage, you should master creating every aspect of it. Unlike novelist, game designers don't only create the story behind the game but they should also craft its visual artifacts, music, and mechanics, and that is why game creation is interesting: it combines so many creative processes. This is exactly why I personally think games are interesting as a testbed.

It has always fascinates me how people come up with great ideas and what inspires these remarkable creations. Take for instance the Harry Potter novel, do you think a computer could one day come up with something similar? I really think it is very unlikely, I actually even believe there are very few humans who can write something similar. I particularly chose Harry Potter because it is a fantasy, it is not something we experienced, seen or even imagined, and it is not something we can create with a little bit of extra effort. It took J. K. Rowling about five years to write the skeleton of the story, a process that fused life experience, great imagination and powerful writing skills. Though what actually inspired the story and the characters remains, at least to me, a big mystery.

Research has so far treated human as Gods, building machines with the sole purpose of imitating humans, but can't we take this one step further. Can't we make machine more spontaneous, more creative, more interestingly unpredictable. This requires not only imitation, but also improvisation, going beyond what you learned towards exploring the unknown. (I know some people will be freaked out by this, as it seems like I'm talking about the rise of robots, but this is not really what I'm aiming for.  What I'm talking about is a system that can understand human and effectively collaborate with her. A system with which you can share your thoughts and actively wait for inspirations. A system to which you say "surprise me" and be prepared to be surprised (in a good way :-))).

So, one of the questions I'm interested in finding an answer to is: can computers, one day, surpass humans in creating novel ideas? There have been quite a lot of success in understanding how humans perform relatively simpler activities such as vision and speech (especially recently with the huge success of deep neural network), but we are still far behind when it comes to understanding the more fundamental cognitive process such as thinking, decision making, emotions, creativity and their relationships.

Games have been the focus of attention for so many people because, let's face it, people like playing game and companies like making money. This is however has so far been a motivation for making better games: games designed by humans with the help of AI. AI is usually employed to make the game design process easier (generation of crowds, making believable non-player characters, or even adjusting the difficulty of the game so that you will play more) or to automate tasks such as planning and path finding. 

Recently, there has also been some interesting work on artificial creativity and how we can teach computers to search for novelty. The problem domain however is still limited and so is the space of actions.  Games on the other hand are worlds widely open for imagination, creativity and understanding human behaviour. I believe we are still taking our very first steps towards understanding these factors and it will take us a while before we grasp some solid knowledge about them. But for now, we have an interesting medium and plenty of unanswered questions, a great setup to start digging in.

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