Back in 2009, Julian Togelius helped organise the first competition to build artificial intelligence to play an open-source clone of “Super Mario Bros.” He was shocked when someone created an amazing bot in a matter of days.
“We were a bit dismayed because we didn’t think the problem would be solved that easily,” Togelius told us in an interview on the state of game-playing AI.
The bot was created by Robin Baumgarten. A video uploaded to YouTube shows Mario speeding through the level with impossible precision, with red lines in front of him showing calculated paths.
How did Baumgarten do it? Basically, he used the open-source game code to create a bot that simulates every possible move as it goes.
“Every timestamp he makes a plan for how to best get to the right end of the screen,” Togelius said. “That’s why he can do all these crazy things.”
Baumgarten shared a few details with us as well. He says it took him about a week to build the initial bot, with two-to-three weeks of optimization.
“I actually released the video before the competition was over — in fact, the bot still had bugs, as you can see when Mario almost falls into a hole,” Baumgarten wrote. “That was almost a mistake, since people on Reddit spotted the video, where it got onto the front page, and some keen Redditors actually tried to copy what I did …. Mine only won by some cunning optimizations and exploitation of the winning condition.”
In subsequent years of the competition, Togelius added new challenges, including levels that forced the bots to backtrack, and Baumgarten’s bot lost its edge in those;Today, the game is essentially solved, and researchers have moved on to harder games.
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