artificial intelligence

Why tech giants are investing millions in Artificial Intelligence that can play video games

AI just beat a top human professional in the game Dota 2, but the technology could help with much bigger strategic problems.

Artificial intelligence researchers at Elon Musk’s OpenAI project recently made a big advance by winning a video game. Unlike recent AI victories over top human players in the games of Go and poker, this AI breakthrough involved a game that many people haven’t heard of, Dota 2. But to the hundreds of millions of fans of this type of online multiplayer battle game, a computer that can beat a professional player is a big deal.

It’s also significant to AI researchers, especially those in companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and IBM, which are investing millions of dollars in creating superhuman AI players for digital games. As AI becomes ever more important in our society, it could have wider implications for all of us because of what it demonstrates about computers’ ability to “think” strategically.

What was particularly remarkable about the Dota 2 victory, achieved by a bot created by the billion-dollar non-profit research company OpenAI, was that its developers didn’t program it with deep understanding of game strategies. Instead, they used an approach known as deep reinforcement learning, where the computer starts with only rudimentary knowledge of game strategy.

By playing against itself millions of times, the AI learns to differentiate good move decisions (that lead to victory) from bad ones. The knowledge is stored in a huge data matrix containing millions of numbers, updated after every self-play game. These numbers encode what’s known as a “function”, the instructions that specify the AI’s learned strategy for every possible game situation. So after the AI researchers programmed the method for learning, the machine effectively taught itself how to make good move decisions.


Dota 2 is part of the massively growing eSports movement, where hundreds of millions of players watch their (human) heroes playing video games, online or in large stadium events. The top human players at Dota 2 are really, really good. They are millionaires who practice for ten hours per day, six or seven days per week. They have lucrative sponsorship deals, professional trainers, sports psychologists, strict health and fitness regimes and many of the other things you would associate with professional players in football or tennis.

So as an AI achievement, beating top human professionals Dendi, Sumail and Arteezy ranks up there with beating human world champions in chess, Go and other games. This is especially true since Dota 2 involves a rich selection of tactics that play out on the screen in real time, meaning players have much less time to think than in turn-based board games.

There are some caveats. The OpenAI player won a two-player version of what is usually a ten-player team game. And each player could only play as one particular character in the game out of over typical 100 possibilities. So this is like beating an individual pro basketball player in a one-on-one game, a significant step that still falls short of the goal of beating a team of human professional players.

Shortly after the show match with Dendi, members of the large crowd were challenged to find ways to beat the AI player, with the first 50 being awarded prizes. All 50 prizes were claimed by humans adopting wacky strategies that the AI player had not previously seen, although the AI can now learn and adapt by itself so would avoid making the same mistakes again.

Why invest in game AI research?

The reason all this is of interest to blue-chip companies is that eSports games provide an easy performance measure that generates substantial public interest. Big firms have been investing vast sums in winning games for more than 20 years, since the triumph of IBM’s Deep Blue against the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov.

The real world is not that simple, and nor is reaching the goal of “artificial general intelligence” comparable to that of humans. But AI’s victory in Dota 2, just like in other games before it, could point to other exciting developments.

For one thing, games designers and players don’t want AI that can simply win a game but also make it more fun. Games provide a unique way to understand how people behave and in particular how human psychology interacts with AI behaviour. By capturing the data for millions of players, as we’re doing at the UK’s Digital Creativity Labs, we can effectively run a huge online psychology experiment that informs us as to what people want from AI, as we research new AI techniques.

Developing AI that can learn to make the best decisions in games could also feed into AI for making other strategic choices in the real world. The Dota 2 AI learns the “function” that gives it the strategy to follow any game situation. Similarly, we could imagine AI programs that learn functions for certain economic, environmental and health situations – for example a recession or an outbreak of disease. These functions would generate effective strategies for dealing with these situations, capable of suggesting good decisions in government or business.

One of the limitations of this kind of decision-making AI is that it can’t tell us why it makes a particular move. While AI may be able to help us make better decisions for some of the toughest strategic problems we face, we will still need humans in the decision loop to consider wider ethical and social considerations. Which will make getting humans and AI to work together more important than ever.

Peter Cowling, Director of IGGI and DC Labs, Professor of Computer Science, University of York.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.