Just Months Old, a Game-Playing A.I. Takes on the World
Forget chess. OpenAI Five wants to beat humanity at a far more complex challenge.
Competition between humans and artificial intelligence (A.I.) usually plays out in research papers. Occasionally, there’s a public performance of a game of chess or Go in front of a staid crowd.
Last month in Vancouver, British Columbia, however, I saw something entirely different.
The Canadian city was playing host to The International, an annual tournament for the video game Dota 2 boasting a $25 million prize pool — the largest in esports history. The event was raucous, tribal. Screaming fans sent vibrations through Vancouver’s hockey arena as teams of professional video game players defended humanity’s honor against game-playing software, each side trading blows and spells. How much of humanity’s honor lies in a fantasy video game remains an open question, but the program’s demonstrable skill had some fans spooked. “It’s the first example of A.I. taking over,” a fan in the stands named Riley Woodruff told me. “It’s hard reality hitting you while you’re enjoying a game.”
A.I. has racked up some impressive successes over the years. It can now approach or surpass human performance on certain tests of music composition, language translation, and disease diagnosis. Researchers have been testing it on games, which require sophisticated forms of reasoning useful for other tasks, since the field’s inception, in the 1950s. A.I. is now superhuman at checkers, chess, Jeopardy, Go, some forms of poker, and many Atari games.
Last year, however, San Francisco–based nonprofit research group OpenAI decided to tackle something much more complicated: the video game Dota 2, because of its complexity, popularity, and convenient software interface.
A Dota 2 player sees a square area of forest from above, with opposing team bases in the bottom-left and top-right corners and team defensive towers dotting three main lanes between the bases. The five players on a team each control one character, or hero. As the game progresses, players collect resources (to build strength and skills) and attack the other team and their towers. The goal is to destroy a structure called an Ancient on the other…