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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.”

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Learning Language With a Game

Have you always dreamed of learning a new language? Make a game of it! That’s the idea behind Memrise, a new language learning website that focuses on building your foreign language vocabulary with social games, quizzes and mnemonic devices.

To help you learn new words more quickly, Memrise introduces them with clever pictures or mnemonic phrases to help you associate the word with its meaning. For example, the Mandarin Chinese character for “child” is represented by a picture of a baby in swaddling clothes, in the shape of the symbol.

There’s also social gaming element- each new word you’re presented with becomes a seed in a virtual garden. Players “tend” the plants by practicing the word and taking quizzes. One of Memrises’ co-founders is a neuroscientist, and the quizzes are supposed to be scientifically calibrated to come at just the right time and with just the right level of difficulty to keep the game challenging but not discouraging. Read more