Friday, October 19, 2007

A task force and an interview

More games-related news today. The IEEE Computational Intelligence Society has just spawned a Task Force on Computational Intelligence in Video Games, chaired by Ken Stanley (of NERO and NEAT fame) and which I am an inaugural member of. From the mission statement:

"We are aiming to become a repository of information on CI in video games, a networking resource for those in the field, and the spearhead for initiatives in the area. We will also attempt to bridge academia and industry by including members from both. Thus ideally we can become a focal point for discussion and action that will facilitate further progress in the field."

This is a very good initiative in my opinion, and being backed by a such a powerful organisation as the IEEE is certainly not bad. As the web site is only just up, the member list is far from complete yet. The task force is looking for information on interesting research groups and projects, so if you want your project featured, contact them!

Over at Alex J. Champandard's blog, "Game AI for Developers", we find an interview with none other than yours truly. Personally, I think it's an interesting read, of course... Thanks for the opportunity, Alex!

One of the things I suggest in the interview is that game developers initiate contacts with academic researchers interested in CI in games. The above mentioned task force could come in very handy for such purposes, as soon as the member list is expanded to include everyone who should be there!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Confessions of an academic crack smoker

Look, I got some attention again. This time from Christer Ericson at Sony Santa Monica, "the God of War team". His blog post is a scathing critique of most of what I've been doing for the last three years, without going into any detail whatsoever, and devoid of constructive suggestions.

I'll try to be less rude.

Christer's argumentation consists in showing one of my early videos with two cars on a track, and pointing out that the AI is not very impressive, as the cars behave erratically and crash into walls. He also makes fun of question I posted to Slashdot, where I was genuinely wondering about what people perceive as being the flaws of current game AI. From this, he implies that my contribution to game AI is null and that I could as well stop what I am doing.

Now, if someone from industry came and argued that what I'm doing is completely useless for game developers, I would take this seriously. Even if he was right, it seems that at least some of what I do is appreciated by the CI community, which is at least equally important to me, so I could accept developer' thinking my ideas were all stupid. However, I would only take such criticism seriously from someone who had actually read my papers and knew what I was doing, and bothered to come up with some suggestions on how to improve my work. None of this is true for Christer's rant.

It's true that the cars in the video don't seem to be driving very well. That was never the objective. Instead, the video is from a series of experiments where I manipulated the fitness function in order to produce interesting driving behaviour. Evolution of controllers that drove a particular track better than any tested human was already reported in our very first car racing paper. It's also true that the cars never learned to recover from some wall crashes. I had wanted this to emerge from the overall progress-based fitness function, which it didn't, and I might get back to work on this later; however, it would be straightforward to either add crash recovery as a specific learning objective, or add a hard-coded function for this. After all, normal game AI is 100%hard-coded.

In short, it would help if Christer either judged my experiments based on their actual objectives, or told me in what way I needed to change my objectives.

It would also help if he looked at some of the work that I myself consider more useful for game development, at least conceptually. (I'm not an expert in graphics, physics, or for that sake real-time collision detection, and don't profess to be one.) Especially the experiments on player modelling and track evolution, but also generalization and specialization for quickly creating drivers for any track, and co-evolution of diverse sets of opponents.

If he read these, and came back and still thought it all stank, I would be very happy to listen to his ideas on how to make my research more relevant for hard-working game developers like him. In the meantime, I'll continue my vacation.

And by the way, I don't smoke.

Monday, October 08, 2007

CEC 2007 Conference Report

So, the 2007 IEEE Congress on Evolutionary Computation is now over. Actually, it's been over for the last ten days. Sorry for taking such time to update my blog, I'm out backpacking at the moment to celebrate finishing my PhD, and I try not to spend all my vacation in front of a computer (even though it's hard fighting that Internet addiction)!

Overall, CEC was an excellent event this year as well. A generous supply of on average really good keynote and invited speakers, so many parallel sessions that there was always something interesting going on, and a superb organization. The only things I would have done differently is spreading the conference out on five or six instead of four days, and not charging money for the tutorials (in fact, many of the tutorials are the same as are included in the general registration for Gecco or PPSN). But those are really minor issues. (A major issue that CEC shares with Gecco and some other conferences is the too low entry barriers / too high acceptance rates, but that's stuff for another blog post.)

Simon's keynote on Evolutionary Computation and Games went down really well, it seems. Apparently, more and more EC researchers are warming up to the idea of using games as testbeds for their algorithms. Simon plugged the car racing competition as well, and there were lots of people talking to me about it in appreciative terms both before and after I presented the results. It seems we have quite a momentum for these kinds of activities at the moment.

Hugo de Garis' invited talk was interesting in a very different way. Actually, it was quite sad. de Garis is known for his huge ambitions and provocative statements, (evolving "artificial brains" as complex as those of kittens, or was it even humans this time around?) so I was looking forward to bold new theories on how such grand aims should be achieved. What followed was some very conventional neuroevolution stuff, and a complete failure to appreciate the real challenge in putting all his evolved neural modules together. Most importantly, he has absolutely no empirical results to show. Predictably, the audience gave him a hard time during the question round.

Other interesting talks included those of Jong-Hwan Kim, the father of RoboCup, on evolvable artificial creatures for ubiquitous robotics, and of Marc Schoenauer on how modern bio-inspired (and population-based) continuous optimisation algorithms such as CMA-ES and PSO now often outperform the orthodox optimisation algorithms used by the applied maths people, on their own benchmark problems. Quite cool.

By the way, did I point out that the organization was superb? Anyway, it deserves saying again. The Stamford convention centre is not only lavishly, but also tastefully, decorated and conference delegates were continuously tended to by an army of servants making sure that we always had something to eat and drink and knew where the venue for the next talk was. The food was simply fantastic, the night safari at the end of the conference was a very nice event, and the conference banquet had nine (!) courses. I can't imagine how our conference fees can have paid for all this - some of the sponsors must have contributed serious money. Rooms were generally easy to find, and most importantly, there was plenty of places where you could just bump into old and new people and have those all-important corridor chats. In all, a very rewarding experience.