Artificially Intelligent Games

17 January 2010

Interview with

Chris Vallance, BBC Technology Correspondent & Rollo Carpenter, Icogno Ltd

Meera -   It's time for our first technology update of 2010 and I'm here with our resident techie, Chris Vallance.  Hello, Chris and happy new year!

Chris V -   Happy new year to you too, Meera.

Meera -   So, what's been happening in the world of technology over Christmas?  I hear that artificial intelligence has been playing a big part.

Chris V -   Well, you said 2010, so I'm going to take you to 221B. 221B Baker Street home of Sherlock Holmes.  Over Christmas, we had the release of the new Guy Ritchie film.  As Sherlock Holmespart of a trailer for that, if you like a digital interactive trailer, there's an online game called 221B.  Now what's interesting about that is the way in which it uses artificial intelligence.  As part of the game, you get to play as Holmes or Watson and you have to interrogate suspects.  You have to ask them questions and the answers they give help you complete the game.  The problem is, when you're asking a game character something, you could ask them it in any number of ways.  Just using ordinary English, the possibilities are endless.  So your options are: let's do it like one of those old, choose your own adventure game books - essentially, "if you want to do A, click here, if you want to B, click here."  That's a bit limiting.  So what the game designers decided to do is approach an expert in artificial intelligence to help them enable natural language type interactions with the game characters.

Meera -   So how does this actually work and what's different about it?

Chris V -   This is one of the big challenges in game design.  Natural linguistic interaction with non-player characters.  What this does is it uses chatbot technology to recognize what a question means.  Now it doesn't have any understanding of the meaning of words.  It doesn't have lots of long lists of complicated grammatical rules.  What it does is fuzzily pattern-matches your question.  So, it's very good at matching your question with the questions it knows how to answer, it does that and produces an answer according to the script.  So the real key here is its ability to recognize questions and know what the appropriate answer is.  In effect, it's creating a digital actor in the game, with a script, but one who can understand kind of what you're saying and respond appropriately.

Meera -   And now, you actually met up with the creator of this to find out a bit more.

Chris V -   Yes, I spoke to Rollo Carpenter who developed the artificial intelligence running the game characters and he explained how his system worked...

Rollo -   My work has been all about creating artificial intelligence that talks, that communicates about anything and everything, and that attempts to look intelligent. To appear to be self-aware.  The same fuzzy technology, fuzzy interpretation of inputs is used in the game. So it is our role to predict what you as Holmes or Watson, might know at that point of the game and the conclusions you might draw, the questions you might ask.

Chris V -   But given the nature of language, there are a near infinite number of possible questions you might ask. Some grammatical, some not grammatical.  So how does the computer understand the question?

Rollo -   It understands by predicting what you will say and finding the nearest match amongst its trillions of predictions.

Chris V -   So essentially, it's a kind of pattern recognition.

Rollo -   Exactly.  It is a kind of pattern recognition, but where the patterns are all treated fuzzily.  If you mistype a few letters, it's not going to be upset.

Chris V -   You've used the technology you've developed to build artificial personalities, but there are clearly commercial applications for this kind of technology.  What do you see as its potential uses?

Rollo -   A machine that can genuinely understand what people say is valuable in almost any number of ways.  But some of the most obvious and immediate concern with customer services, support, marketing, and so forth.

Chris V -   So when I ring up the call centre at some point in the future, I might get a computer?

Rollo -   Indeed.  The people at the end of the phone all too often have to work to a very restricted script and a computer would be capable of handling scripts 10,000 times larger.  And so, it may actually do its job enormously better.

Chris V -   That was Rollo Carpenter whose chatbot technology drives the characters in the game.

Meera -   So Chris, have you actually had a go on this and if so, were you able to solve a mystery?

Chris V -   I didn't get as far as solving a mystery, but I did try out interrogating one of the characters and you can see the results of that up on a video on BBC News online.  It does work surprisingly well actually, asking questions in natural ways, even trying to catch it out a little bit. 
You can still have a go with the game online.

Meera -   So, I'm going to probably have a go on that as soon as possible, but is this something we're likely to see more of in other areas of gaming?

Chris V -   I think it's hard with the big budget games.  Game designers have told me the challenge there is essentially that you have very complicated pieces of animation for console games when you have these stunning visuals.  You get voice actors to do the dialogue.  So, spontaneously creating dialogue and the action to go alongside it is quite a big technical challenge, just from the sound and visual side, let alone making that dialogue meaningful.  So this is still an area where there's a lot of development to be done.  It's still a big technical challenge.

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