Games Computers Play

Can we really teach computers to understand language, like a human can, or are they more like parrots, able to memorize certain words and phrases without actually grasping the meaning?

A new paper presented by MIT researcher Regina Barzilay and her graduate students indicates that computers will one day  have the capability to truly understand human language…perhaps sooner than we think.

To test how well their machine learning system understands written language, the researchers programmed it to teach itself to play the video game “Civilization” by “reading” the game’s user manual.

The results: after reading the manual, the computer won 79 percent of the games it played, as opposed to 46 percent without the manual.
S. R. K. Branavan, a graduate student who worked on the project, explained to MIT News that games like “Civilization” make an attractive way to test out computer intelligence because they are almost as complex as the real world:

“Games are used as a test bed for artificial-intelligence techniques simply because of their complexity. 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.”


The computer started playing the game with no previous experience and no knowledge of the English language. In other words, the researchers did not program it to respond to the appearance of certain English words by completing certain actions. Rather, the computer “taught itself” English by comparing the words in the manual to the words on-screen, hypothesizing about the actions it was being directed to take, and discarding hypotheses that resulted in it losing.

Eugene Charniak, University Professor of Computer Science at Brown University, told MIT News that:

“If you’d asked me beforehand if I thought we could do this yet, I’d have said no. You are building something where you have very little information about the domain, but you get clues from the domain itself.”

As an aside, who thought it was a good idea to let the computer play a game where the goal is world domination? Too late: as for me, I’d like to be the first to welcome our robotic overlords!

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