The story of Ms. Pac-Man is an epic tale of the struggle between the machinations of an evil horde of spirits and the enduring courage of a
yellow alligator hungry happy-face very feminine cheese pizza whatever the hell type of creature Ms. Pac-Man is. Well today that story is being determined not by a pimply faced youth in an arcade, but by the skills of artificial intelligences. The Ms. Pac-Man vs. Ghosts competition, part of the annual Congress on Evolutionary Computation, pits different Java-script AIs against one another to see which can earn the highest score as Ms. Pac-Man or keep their opponents to the lowest score as Ghosts. Check out a typical match up in the video below. While we're used to seeing computers driven to replace humans in tasks of creativity and analysis, Ms. Pac-Man vs. Ghosts is a unique reminder that ultimate competition won't be between man and machine but between ever more incredible forms of artificial intelligence.
The results for Ms. Pac-Man vs. Ghosts were recently announced, with the top competitors in each field far outstripping their competition. "James" from Malaysia (associated the University of Nottingham) took the top spot for a Ms. Pac-Man AI, with an average score of 34,728. "Emgallar" (the University of Carlos III in Madrid) was a close second at 34,139, and the two were thousands of points ahead of the next contestant. For the Ghosts, "ngkien" of Ristumeikan University in Japan got an incredibly low average of 11,407. Emgallar, who placed third in Ghosts, was the only competitor to rank in the top three on both sides of the battle.
The highest human scores for the original arcade game are typically in the many hundreds of thousands, but don't be fooled by the relatively low marks earned by the AIs here. While Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Sue from the arcade version are generally aimed at making the game more addictive to play, the AI ghosts in this contest were optimized to hunt Ms. Pac-Man down as quickly as possible. Other differences between the competition version of the game include a lack of variation in speed (no tiny boost when rounding corners), no bonus fruits, and a timer on the ghosts to encourage them to attack faster.
The following video shows an example match-up between competitors, in this case top ranking Ms. Pac-Man "James" versus top-ranking Ghosts "ngkien". Please note that this simulation was just a demo, and that the average scores were determined over 10 games.
I'm not sure if I find watching an intense game of Ms. Pac-Man really nerve-wracking, or a little boring. Maybe a bit of both. If you want to see more, the official YouTube channel for the competition has a bunch of other videos for you to check out.
Modern AIs have been competing in Ms. Pac-Man since 2007, but this is the first year that programmers were able to write scripts for the Ghosts. I'm enthralled with the idea of AIs battling one another in (relatively) simple scenarios. The behaviors developed for both the Ghosts and Ms. Pac-Man could ultimately be adapted to all sorts of other optimization strategies for everything from military to manufacturing applications. Yet that's less important (and probably less likely) than such competitions generally fostering interest in the AI vs. AI concept among the next generation of programmers. This newest batch of computer scientists will likely be among the first to have access to the processing power and software necessary to create advanced artificial intelligences. Encouraging programmers to experiment with AI competitions now will pay dividends later as they face the challenges of not only creating learning machines, but making them faster, smarter, and cheaper than everyone else.
While it may be decades until humanity produces the first artificial general intelligence, we've already seen many narrow AIs that can perform amazing tasks of analysis and decision making. As corporations and governments leverage these AIs to augment (and then replace) human skills, we'll enter a world where direct AI competition is what determines who makes billions of dollars on Wall Street, who controls the world's nuclear weapons, and much much more. Today the AIs are fighting over power pellets, tomorrow they could be fighting over the real world.
Hopefully that won't lead to us all keeping Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Sue company in the virtual afterlife.
*I know most of you out there aren't computer scientists, but if you find short technical papers on AI exciting, the programmers from the Ms. Pac-Man vs Ghosts Competition have provided several worth checking out. Read them here.
[image and video credits: The Ms. Pac-Man vs Ghosts Competition]
[sources: Ms. Pac-Man vs Ghosts Competition]