Elon Musk hails AI bot’s video game victory

USB stick
A security staff member at The International Dota 2 Championships holds up a plug-in USB stick for an AI bot programmed to play esports. Dota 2 master Dendi stands onstage in the background, waiting to do battle in Seattle. (OpenAI via YouTube)

The Dota 2 esports tournament in Seattle, known as The International, demonstrates how video games have become hugely popular team sports — and today alpha geek Elon Musk took the occasion to tout a different kind of team effort.

Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, is also a big supporter of OpenAI, a nonprofit research company aimed at boosting artificial intelligence architectures and applications that benefit humanity.

Today, OpenAI showed off an AI bot that vanquished Danylo “Dendi” Ishutin, one of the world’s top Dota 2 players, in a one-vs.-one demonstration match.

“OK, this guy is scary,” Ishutin said as he battled the bot’s minions. The crowd at KeyArena groaned when the bot crushed Ishutin’s game avatars.

Ishutin was beaten badly in the first match, forfeited a second match, and refused to play a third.

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Mozak turns brain mapping into video game

Mozak video game
Mozak employs citizen scientists and gamers to trace the intricate shapes of neurons, as shown by the purple lines above, and to speed fundamental brain science research. (UW Graphic)

game called Mozak is turning thousands of Internet users into “tracers” who help neuroscientists map out the tangled circuitry of brain cells.

The citizen-science project was created by the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science in partnership with the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Mozak took a share of the spotlight at last October’s White House Science Fair, but the project is just now coming out of beta. In a news release, UW says results gleaned from the game have helped the Allen Institute’s researchers reconstruct neurons 3.6 times faster than previous methods.

Guided by online tutorials, the game’s tracers can produce neuron reconstructions that are 70 to 90 percent complete, compared to the 10 to 20 percent success rate for the most effective computer-generated reconstructions.

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Video arcades are back, with virtual reality

Teen playing virtual reality game
Max Tomlinson, a 13-year-old from Puyallup, Wash., brandishes controllers as he walks a virtual plank, seemingly suspended 50 stories above street level, at the Portal VR arcade in Ballard. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Remember the days when arcades were the places where kids could play the coolest video games? No? Well, now you can get in on that experience, this time with immersive virtual reality adventures instead of Frogger and Pac-Man.

Portal, at 2601 NW Market St. in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, is the latest local addition to the genre – joining other hangouts such as Odyssey VR in Redmond and Virtual Sports in Tukwila.

“Our primary target was twentysomethings, tech workers,” said Tim Harader, a technology evangelist who founded Portal in league with his wife, Page. “But what we found is that the target market is just all over the place. Whether they’re 8 years old or 80, they’re all just blown away.”

Portal’s vibe is different from the arcade environment of the ’80s. “You won’t hear a cacophony of blaring arcade sounds here,” the establishment says on its website. “Instead, you’ll enter an atmosphere of comfortable coolness.”

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AlphaGo beats Go masters in stealth games

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The AI program known as AlphaGo has mastered the game of Go. (Credit: Google DeepMind)

For the past week or so, a mystery player has been logging into online Go game servers and beating the world’s best. Today, the player’s identity was revealed at last.

It was none other than AlphaGo, the artificial-intelligence program that triumphed over Go master Lee Sedol last March in a widely publicized $1 million showdown.

Google DeepMind’s co-founder and CEO, Demis Hassabis, let the world in on the secret today in a tweeted statement.

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Watch asteroid hunters play the Xtronaut game

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The Xtronaut board game gives players a taste of the science, economics and politics behind planning an interplanetary robotic mission. (Credit: Xtronaut via Amazon)

Watching a couple of guys play a board game on streaming video may not sound exciting – unless those two guys also play the real-life asteroid-hunting game.

That’s precisely the situation facing Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Planetary Resources, based in Redmond, Wash.; and Dante Lauretta, a University of Arizona professor who’s the principal investigator for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission.

They’ll be battling over the playing board – and discussing developments in asteroid science and exploration – during a Google Hangout that starts at 11 a.m. PT Friday.

The game in question is Xtronaut, a simplified simulation of the mission-planning process for interplanetary robotic exploration. Lauretta’s the co-creator of the board game, which lifted off last year thanks to Kickstarter.

“We have been playing this game in the office, and can assure you it is JUST like planning a real mission,” Lewicki says on the YouTube page touting the Hangout.

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Stretchy stuff turns your arm into a touchpad

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A researcher uses a stretchy touchpad on the forearm to play a video piano. (Kim et al. / Science)

If you see gamers poking at their forearms to play Angry Birds on the bus in the year 2020, remember when you first heard this would happen. South Korean researchers have developed a clear plastic touchpad that works even when it’s stretched to more than 10 times its normal area.

The touchpad is made of hydrogel – a type of flexible, stretchable substance that’s also used in soft contact lenses, diapers and medical devices. For the experiment described in this week’s issue of the journal Science, the researchers added lithium chloride salts to make the hydrogel electrically conductive.

Electrodes on each end of the touchpad create an electrostatic field across the hydrogel sheet. When you press your finger onto the pad, it closes an electrical circuit and creates a current that can be read by meters on each corner of the sheet.

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Pokémon Go on HoloLens? Make it so!

Charizard on HoloLens
A mixed-reality view through a Microsoft HoloLens headset shows a Charizard taunting a Pokemon Go player. (Credit: Koder via YouTube)

Millions of Pokémon Go players are peering into smartphones to look for animated characters in an augmented-reality world, but what if they could look for them wearing Microsoft’s HoloLens headset instead?

That’s not commercially available at this point, but a couple of coding teams thought it would be cool to work up prototypes for a Pokeman/HoloLens mash-up – and now they’re sharing their results.

California-based Koder developed one such prototype. “My colleague [Paul Nguyen] and I built it over a 2-day period and made a video to show the experience,” Elmer Morales, Koder’s founder and CEO, told GeekWire in an email.

See the videos on GeekWire.


Boeing bans Pokémon Go at work

Image: Pokemon Jets
You can catch Pokemon characters on Boeing jets, as shown in this lineup for All Nippon Airways, but don’t try catching them at Boeing facilities. (Credit: ANA / Nintendo via Japan Info)

Mark off the Boeing Co. as one more place where you shouldn’t be playing Pokémon Go, the monster-catching game that’s been taking smartphones by storm.

It’s not that Boeing has anything against Charmander or those other cute virtual critters: It’s just that the game sucks up bandwidth as well as work time – and also poses potential safety risks.

9to5Mac reported last week that the game was being installed on more than 100 work phones at a large aerospace company, and that one employee almost got hurt due to gameplay distraction. Tweets and follow-ups made clear that the company was Boeing, and that Pokémon Go was added to a software blacklist that bans carrier bloatware apps.

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Pokemon Go is no-go for the space station

Image: Pikachu in Pokemon
Pikachu may fly on a rainbow in space, but don’t expect to catch one on the International Space Station. (Credit: Pikachu via YouTube)

Astronauts have zapped virtual aliens on the International Space Station, using Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed-reality headset. So how about Pokémon Go, the latest craze in mixed-reality smartphone gaming? No-go, says NASA.

“It is not possible for astronauts to play,” NASA spokesman Dan Huot told GeekWire, in just one of many emails he’s been sending out today in response to press queries. “There is a small number of smartphones available on ISS which the crew use for science activities (like SPHERES), but not for personal use.”

The smartphones and tablets that are in use on the station don’t have internet connectivity, Huot explained. The astronauts have access only to the apps designed for the payloads they’re intended for, and can’t add apps as is typically done by smartphone users on Earth. If they need to use the internet – for example, to post snapshots on Twitter – they connect via laptops that are locked down in terms of cybersecurity.

“And as far as location services, the astronauts use ISS internal GPS data and custom applications to determine their location and position,” Huot said. “Location-based services we use here on Earth are not utilized.”

That means the space station’s navigation network couldn’t work with the Pokémon critters’ coordinates, even if the astronauts were connected to the game.

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A.I. software masters the game of Go

Image: Go computer
Google is set for the ultimate human-vs.-machine Go match. (Credit: Nature / Google DeepMind)

Mark another milestone in the rise of the machines: An artificial intelligence program pioneered by Google DeepMind has learned how to play the game of Go well enough to beat a human champion decisively in a fair match.

That’s a quantum leap for artificial intelligence: Go is looked upon as the “holy grail of AI research,” said Demis Hassabis, the senior author of a research paper on the project published today by the journal Nature.

The game seems simple enough, involving the placement of alternating black and white stones on a 19-by-19 grid. The object is merely to avoid having your stones hemmed in on four sides by your opponent’s stones. But Go, which originated in China thousands of years ago, is considered the world’s most complex game. “It has 10170 possible board positions, which is greater than the number of atoms in the universe,” Hassabis noted.

That means a computer program can’t best humans with the same kind of approach used for checkers and and chess. The programs for those games combine brute-force searches through the possible moves with a weighted evaluation of patterns in moves. But researchers at Google DeepMind say their software, known as AlphaGo, takes a different approach.

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