Monday, May 11, 2009

Traveller In The New Yorker

Allan Grohe pointed me toward an article in the May 11, 2009 issue of The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell. Part of the "Annals of Innovation" series, the current article is entitled "How David Beats Goliath" and discusses how underdogs often beat the odds by behaving in unexpected and seemingly irrational ways. The article offers many differnt examples to advance its thesis, but the one that caught Allan's eye and mine was the discussion of Doug Lenat and the computer program Eurisko, which he used to win the 1981 and 1982 Trillion Credit Squadron tournaments sponsored by Game Designers Workshop.

For myself, I find it endlessly satisfying that, because of Lenat and Eurisko, Traveller will forever be linked to the history of the development of artificial intelligence. Not too bad for a roleplaying game set in a far future whose computers are described as significantly less impressive than most desktop computers currently available.

13 comments:

  1. I read that article last week with great interest. I also just happened to discuss (this morning) the recurring problem in SF of future computers not getting any better in a review of Speaker for the Dead, over here:

    http://angrymath.blogspot.com/

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  2. I find myself fascinated by the counter-factuals that article suggests. How different would TCS and modern basketball be if - instead of spitting their dummies and crying foul - the hegemonic groups had adopted the strategies that were beating them?

    Good find.

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  3. What an odd wavelength we're all on. I also read that article last week.

    How different would TCS and modern basketball be if - instead of spitting their dummies and crying foul - the hegemonic groups had adopted the strategies that were beating them?It is neat to think about, and also shows how some activites go from what's customary to dearly held unwritten rules.

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  4. When Gladwell states 'their other advantage is that they will do what is “socially horrifying”—they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought.' he reminds me of Charles Dunlap's 1997 article in Parameters (the US Army War College periodical) where he describes what he terms as "neo-absolute warfare". http://www.carlisle.army.mil/USAWC/Parameters/97autumn/dunlap.htm

    My real concern with the article though is about the whole "running the world in real time" concept. I have always thought that the technology that supports immediate communications also contributes to poor decision making. When people expect immediate responses to emails, SMS etc, it means tha people take less time to make their decisions, and in fact may be placed under stress to make decisions more quickly - which surely must impact in the quality of decisions.

    Which has nothing (or maybe everything - considering the central premise of the Traveller universe was that there was FTL communications) to do with Traveller....

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  5. I fear the New Yorker is not telling the whole story.

    The Steve Jackson forums have some details from people who were there:

    http://forums.sjgames.com/showthread.php?t=57747&highlight=lenat

    A similar article was discussed on the TML several years back and Mr. Wiseman commented on the story then.

    IIRC, Doug Lenat's version has the same facts but draws different inferences from them. The article in The New Yorker mentions that the "rules" changed between the first TCS tourney and the second. That strongly, and incorrectly, implies that all the HG2 rules were changed while weakly, and also incorrectly, implying that the rules were changed because of Lent's success.

    We all know, of course, that each TCS tourney had different criteria with regards to pilots, refueling, fleet drive ratings, and so forth, and those were the rules that were changed. People who've never heard of Traveller or TCS before reading this article will know nothing of the sort and infer something completely different.

    When Lenat tells the story he naturally emphasizes how well his computer's designs did despite the "rules" being changed while also not explaining exactly what those rule changes actually were. That's entirely human.

    The talk GDW had with Lenat after he entered again is also open to interpretation. Lenat claims GDW was going to cancel the tourney if he remained in it while LKW remembers something rather different. The point trying to be made was probably something along the lines of "Hey, this is a convention tournament and not a science experiment. What say we all just have fun?". Both sides, being human, remember the conversation differently and then infer different things from those memories.

    The fact that it happened nearly 30 years ago is an important factor too, as is the fact that Lenat has been "dining out" on his Eurisko triumph for that long.

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  6. "Hey, this is a convention tournament and not a science experiment. What say we all just have fun?"

    God save me from people who say things like that (esp. in the context of a competitive game).

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  7. @ Groakes: What the heck are you doing on here?!

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  8. Hey Timeshadows (aka KSE) - everyone has gotta be somewhere!

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  9. Interesting discussion of the Gladwell article here:
    http://isteve.blogspot.com/2009/05/dont-worry-its-just-malcolm-being.html

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  10. Reading the New Yorker article in conjunction with the posting about the "oracular power of dice" has made re-think the need to "create vivid combat scenes."

    The NY article points out that games are abstractions and that when humans play them, they fill in the holes to make a collection of calculations feel like reality. And players can do this for themselves as well as the GM. So rolling your own dice and seeing that natural 20 come up feels more satisying and maybe more real than hearing your GM fumble for another synonym for "cleave."

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  11. Does anyone know where to find the stats for the winning fleets?

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  12. Loren Wiseman was there, and you can find him on the SJ forums (at the link above).

    You should also check the "Citizens of the Imperium" forum -- a lot of old-school Traveller guys are on there.

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  13. "Hey, this is a convention tournament and not a science experiment. What say we all just have fun?"

    Delta:God save me from people who say things like that (esp. in the context of a competitive game).

    Counterpoint: If the referees had wanted to get nasty about it, they could have disqualified Lenat off the bat for submitting ships that couldn't "jump" to the battlefield. AFAICT the referees in question didn't want to go there.

    Lenat was using a sledgehammer to smash a snail. That tactic worked in the Traveller case, but that doesn't mean Lenat is a genius. It doesn't even mean Lenat picks good business models.

    Lenat is still working on his AI programs and still spending a lot of money on programmer salaries. If he manages to deliver something awesome before he dies of old age, then we can look back and say, "Yeah, Lenat was a winner all along." If he continues to burn money and doesn't win out, people will look back and say, "His high point was winning a Traveller tournament."

    Lenat's work is online at:
    http://www.cyc.com/

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