Robots can outwit us on virtual battlefield

Artificial intelligence developer DeepMind has just announced its latest milestone: a bot called AlphaStar that plays the popular real-time strategy game StarCraft II at Grandmaster level.

This isn’t the first time a bot has outplayed humans in a strategy war game. In 1981, a program called Eurisko, developed by artificial intelligence (AI) pioneer Doug Lenat, won the US championship of Traveller, a highly complex strategy war game in which players design a fleet of 100 ships. Eurisko was consequently made an honorary Admiral in the Traveller navy.

The following year, the tournament rules were overhauled in an attempt to thwart computers. But Eurisko triumphed for a second successive year. With officials threatening to abolish the tournament if a computer won again, Lenat retired his program.

Grand challenge
DeepMind’s PR department would have you believe that StarCraft “has emerged by consensus as the next grand challenge (in computer games)” and “has been a grand challenge for AI researchers for over 15 years”.

In the most recent StarCraft computer game tournament, only four entries came from academic or industrial research labs. The nine other bots involved were written by lone individuals outside the mainstream of AI research.

In fact, the 42 authors of DeepMind’s paper, published today in Nature, greatly outnumber the rest of the world building bots for StarCraft. Without wishing to take anything away from an impressive feat of collaborative engineering, if you throw enough resources at a problem, success is all but assured.

Unlike recent successes with computer chess and Go, AlphaStar didn’t learn to outwit humans simply by playing against itself. Rather, it learned by imitating the best bits from nearly a million games played by top-ranked human players.

Robot wars
This raises the question of whether, in the future, we will see robots not just fighting wars but planning them too. Actually, we already have both.

Despite the many warnings raised by AI researchers such as myself – as well as by founders of AI and robotics companies, Nobel Peace Laureates, and church leaders – fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots”, have been developed and will soon be used.

In 2020, Turkey will deploy kamikaze drones on its border with Syria. These drones will use computer vision to identify, track and kill people without human intervention.

This is a terrible development. Computers do not have the moral capability to decide who lives or dies. They have neither empathy nor compassion. “Killer robots” will change the very nature of conflict for the worse.

Computers have also been used extensively by generals to war-game potential strategies. But just as we wouldn’t entrust all battlefield decisions to a single soldier, handing over the full responsibilities of a general to a computer would be a step too far.

For full report log on to