This article was published on August 31, 2021

Why the Pentagon’s probably drooling over the upcoming Age of Empires 4 launch

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Why the Pentagon’s probably drooling over the upcoming Age of Empires 4 launch

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Microsoft, a company with numerous military contracts, has brazenly admitted it intends to train an artificial intelligence agent to become “unbeatable” by humans in war simulations.

Feel free to run amok in a fugue state of panic at your own discretion, but I should point out it’s for a video game.

Of course, that doesn’t really make it any less scary.

Up front: an upcoming real-time strategy game titled Age of Empires 4 is set to release on Xbox Game Pass at the end of October. It’s being developed by Relic and published by Xbox Game Studios.

Kotaku’s Alex Walker recently interviewed Microsoft Studios’ creative director, Adam Isgreen, to discuss the game’s AI. Per Walker’s article:

Age 4 already used machine learning to train its AI, but after the game launches this October, the developers will probably add this harder difficulty mode that will just continually learn from whatever the current meta is. “We use machine learning in training the AI right now, but we want to take that even further.

Down the road, not at launch, we’ll probably look into having a merciless AI that keeps learning the more people play against it, to the point that it’ll be unbeatable,” Isgreen said. “But we’re OK with that, because if you opt into that difficulty, if you want to opt into making the AI better at beating you, go right ahead.”

Background: Isgreen’s careful to point out that Age 4 uses “machine learning” to train its “AI.” In this case, they mean they use machine learning to train the game’s computer opponent.

If you’ve never played any of the Age of Empires games, they’re a bit like boardless board games you can play with other people or against a simulated opponent controlled by the game’s logic.

What’s interesting here: we have to trace a few threads, and ultimately it might sound like a conspiracy theory, but this could have some very real implications for military AI.

Microsoft has several military AI contracts, but the competition remains stiff. Amazon’s in position to bid on just about anything it can, and Google’s bound to reenter the scuffle as soon as it’s able to get all of its paperwork in order.

Each of those companies has billions of dollars at their disposal, cutting-edge hardware, and laboratories filled with some of the brightest minds and most talented developers on the planet. And, arguably, that makes it difficult to choose between them.

The launch of Age of Empires 4 could signify the rumblings of a new era that slowly tilts the scale in Microsoft’s favor.

Let’s look at it from the point of view of an AI researcher to understand how.

Say you’re trying to teach an urban combat robot how to sweep and clear a city block. You’ll probably run millions of iterations in a simulated environment. And then, once you were confident your model could handle the basics, you’d likely start training it against experts.

[Related: Oh great, now scientists are teaching AI how to evade pursuit]

Unfortunately, the vast majority of human combatants throughout history have been neither machines nor warfare experts. They’re regular people. And there’s an incredible amount of value in being able to train an AI warfare model against the machinations of regular people – as long as you can do it at a large enough scale to matter.

And, despite Google and Amazon’s best efforts, Microsoft is the only big tech company in serious contention for military AI projects that can, at least hypothetically, offer the potential to test out combat AI in simulated warfare environments against tens of millions of humans who’ll pay for the privilege.

Quick take: we’re not saying Microsoft is actually using Age of Empires 4 to test out military AI. But it certainly stands as an interesting test of the concept.

There’s nothing that we’re aware of, legally speaking, that would prevent Microsoft from sharing data between divisions.

The question is, would it be ethical to offer gamers the opportunity to opt-in to a paradigm by which their gaming data could be exploited for military insights?

On the one hand, researchers dream of a paradigm where they can tap millions of humans to help them test an AI. Imagine if we could find a way to turn Madden, Halo, GTA, or Minecraft gameplay into a pipeline for advancing AI.

The implications would be like picturing the current state of AI research as a faucet with a drip and then imagining it as a fire hose open full-blast.

But, on the other hand: do gamers truly want to play such a giant role in the development of the Pentagon’s war machine?

It’s possible we’ll never have to answer questions like these. There’s no real reason to believe Microsoft’s secretly planning to use Xbox Game Pass as a training ground for advanced military AI.

But, honest question: is there any real reason to believe it isn’t?

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