01 October 2005

Saturday night fights

This Saturday I want to introduce you to something from the Digital Media Collaboratory (DMC) of the Innovation Creativity and Capital Institute (IC2) at the University of Texas.

The screenshot shown here is from Project NERO, an exploration into artificial intelligence, training, learning and teaching, and although it's a game, it also offers insights into how machines can be designed to learn. It also has implications for the way we learn and teach in the real world.

NERO stands for stands for Neuro-Evolving Robotic Operatives. As a player, you train your army of robots to fight in various terrains and against various opponents. You set goals for them by rewarding and punishing various behaviors, and the robots learn Darwin-style: those that achieve the goals are allowed to reproduce, and those that do not, die out.

The system tracks the evolution of species, complexity of neural networks and various other factors. Be warned: it's addictive! I got fully sucked in and wasted an entire day on this yesterday, developing various armies with different specialties. Here are the names of the armies I developed yesterday:
- Assault troops: Shock troops with no fear or regard for their own lives
- Hunters: Rapidly search an area and kill anythng they find
- Searchers: Trained for combat in maze-like environments
- Survivors: Soldiers who disperse, hide and preserve their own skins, killing enemies when they can
- Swarm: Stick together in a "hive" and swarm around any opponent

NERObots have some lessons for how to teach in the real world:
- Teach one thing at a time. NERObots get confused when confronted with multiple learning objectives simultaneously. You have to work with them till one habit or behavior is firmly instilled and then build on that.
- There's no substitute for practice. You train your NERObots in a sandbox and then deploy them in real-life battles. The more they train, the stronger they get.
- Good training requires a plan. To be successful with NERObots, you need to set clear criteria for success, and build your training plan so one learning objective builds on the next.
- Unleash creativity for the best results. If you set up a structured "learning environment" and clear learning objectives without prescribing solutions, NERObots will discover things you might never have taught them: my NERObots achieved many of their goals in ways I did not anticipate.

Unfortunately for you Mac users out there, NERO is not available for Macs. But if you have a PC, you can download NERO for free and try it yourself.

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