In brief AI algorithms crushed eight world champions playing the card game Bridge, marking another milestone in machine learning systems becoming better than humans at specific games.
Top Bridge players were invited to play against NooK, AI software developed by French startup NuukAI, in a tournament over two days in Paris. They battled against one another across 80 rounds, and the machine won 67 sets, beating humans at a rate of 83 per cent, according to The Guardian.
NooK is made up of a combination of modern deep learning and older rule-based programmes. NuukAI’s co-founder Jean-Baptiste Fantun said the company had developed the software over five years, and its decisions are easier to understand compared to today’s black box-like systems.
It should be noted, however, that the software did not play Bridge fully. Some parts like the game’s bidding stage were left out; it’s a complicated process that involves trying to trick your opponents by using various strategies concocted with your teammates.
Waymo is expanding its Trusted Testers program to San Francisco
Cars without human drivers behind the wheel already operate in the Californian city, but currently only pick up company employees. Now, Waymo wants to open up its driverless, robo-taxis to select members of the public in San Francisco under its Trusted Testers program. The program was first launched in Phoenix, Arizona.
“We’re particularly excited about this next phase of our journey as we officially bring our rider-only technology to San Francisco—the city many of us at Waymo call home,” Waymo’s co-CEO Tekedra Mawakana, said in a statement.
“We’ve learned so much from our San Francisco Trusted Testers over the last six months, not to mention the innumerable lessons from our riders in the years since launching our fully autonomous service in the East Valley of Phoenix. Both of which have directly impacted how we bring forward our service as we welcome our first employee riders in SF.”
Meta teaches synthetic AI voices to ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’
Researchers at Meta have released a software library to help developers build machine learning speech systems that sound more natural with the ability to pause, laugh, or even make yawning sounds.
The library contains components necessary to train its Generative Spoken Language Model (GSLM), a system introduced by the social media giant last year. Unlike most speech models that typically convert audio signals to speech first, GSLM handles raw speech directly. By doing so, it captures some vocal expressions that aren’t explicitly expressed in text like umming and ahhing, tone, intonation, and rhythm.
“The key to this achievement is GSLM’s ability to capture generic audio events irrespective of whether they are verbal, in particular nonverbal vocalizations, like laughter or yawning, which inform the expression and perception of emotional states or intentions that can meaningfully influence conversations,” Meta explained in a blog post this week.
Researchers demonstrated GSLM by crafting a completely made-up conversation between two AI agents that sounds uncannily human. The Textless NLP library to build the model can be found here.
Google’s search engine to better help people in need of emotional support
Google is rolling out a machine learning model that will detect difficult personal search requests made via its search engine and provide more sensitive answers to help people in crises.
The model MUM will be able to send Google users links to phone numbers of websites for mental health charities if they search for things like ways to commit suicide or suicide hotspots, for example.
“MUM is able to help us understand longer or more complex queries like ‘why did he attack me when i said i dont love him,'” Anne Merritt, product manager for health and information quality, told The Verge. “It may be obvious to humans that this query is about domestic violence, but long, natural-language queries like these are difficult for our systems to understand without advanced AI.”
Google didn’t reveal much information about how MUM detects these types of queries. It also said it had used BERT, another one of its language models, to reduce “unexpected shocking results by 30 per cent” year-on-year when people search for graphic content like pornography. ®
Qualtrics CEO Zig Serafin sat down with Silicon Republic editor Elaine Burke to discuss his leadership style as an expert in experience management.
It has been an eventful few years for US tech company Qualtrics, and not least because of the pandemic.
The company founded by a family out of Utah was bought by SAP in 2018 for $8bn. It then went public in January 2021 with a successful IPO that valued the company at $15bn. That same year then saw Qualtrics earn $1bn in revenue for its experience management technology. But what is experience management?
CEO Zig Serafin says it’s the “ultimate advantage” for modern businesses. It’s about tuning in to the needs and desires of customers and taking action on that knowledge “with empathy, with speed and at scale”.
Serafin was in Dublin recently while on a tour across Europe meeting with Qualtrics clients. He spoke with SiliconRepublic.com for our Conversations with Leaders series shortly after checking in on the company’s new office in the Irish capital.
Qualtrics’ already substantial footprint a stone’s throw from St Stephen’s Green is expanding in response to the company’s global growth. “Dublin is the epicentre of how we operate across Europe,” said Serafin, and this European HQ is fully equipped with all the fixings of the modern tech office and more – including its own pub.
But Serafin said Qualtrics, a company obsessed with creating optimal experiences, knows that these days workplaces need to offer flexibility and the ability to work from home as well as a workspace that provides a “home from home”.
“Both experiences are important,” he said. “That digital experience and the physical experience, and how they come together.”
Qualtrics’ own research shows that it can take just one negative experience to lose a customer, or an employee, and with the sheer array of tools available to businesses today, it is possible to continuously track and improve experiences. But possible doesn’t mean easy.
There’s plenty of data available – from user analytics to customer support chats to online sentiment analysis and everything in between. And while Qualtrics has all the software and AI capabilities to parse this information and make it not just digestible but actionable, Serafin said the secret sauce is something altogether more human.
“At the end of the day it comes down to this notion of empathy,” he said. And that’s the throughline of Serafin’s leadership, too.
In our interview, he expressed how empathy (and a helping of TACOS) is at the core of Qualtrics. He also shared what he learned about leadership from his early years on the family farm through to 17 years at Microsoft, where he faced a review with Bill Gates in his first week on the job.
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This week marks a truly important video game anniversary: it is 50 years since Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney incorporated Atari Inc, the company that laid the foundations for the video games industry. There have been many appraisals of the company and its landmark achievements in the games press over the past few days – from the arrival of a Pong machine in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California, in 1972, through classic titles such as Breakout, Asteroids and Missile Commands, to the iconic home consoles. So many moments of creative genius, so many genres, concepts and conventions bursting into existence at the hands of scruffy engineers and designers such as Ed Logg, Larry Kaplan and Dona Bailey.
But one element that often gets overlooked in these nostalgic reveries is the way in which Atari taught the first generation of electronic gamers how to think symbolically. With two rectangles and a square, Pong invited us to visualise tennis, while Night Driver’s series of moving rectangles convinced us we were driving a car. Some will point to the 1972 console the Magnavox Odyssey as the originator of these concepts, but it was Atari putting them in arcade machines – and later consoles –all over the world.
It was also Atari that generated a whole universe around its simple games. Through beautiful cabinet designs, expert use of iconography and graphic design, and the gorgeous illustrations on its Atari VCS cartridges, the company sought to simulate the imagination of players before they even held the controller. The boxes for titles such as Berzerk and Defender, all highly abstract and visually simple games, were alive with drama; they showed human characters, explosions and colours that were impossible to achieve on screen at the time, quietly providing players with the imaginative tools they needed to become immersed. Would we have cared so much about the fate of the lifeless rock at the base of the screen in Missile Command if it hadn’t been for George Opperman’s package art? The tense commander at his desk, the explosions, the missiles seemingly scorching out of the box itself …
It was George Opperman who also designed Atari’s now legendary logo, consisting of three simple lines, the two exterior shafts curving inwards toward the peak. Over the years Opperman claimed many influences for his design – Mount Fuji, Japanese alphabet symbols, Pong itself – personally, I’ve always viewed it as a spaceship. But it’s how the image seems to sum up the excitement and futuristic promise of the company that really matters. When we see the logo flash briefly on the screen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, it’s a quick visual signifier that this is a highly technological landscape. It fits in perfectly with a world of androids and flying cars.
Nolan Bushnell saw how video games could naturally bleed from the screen into real space, meat space. During the 1970s, the industry started in pubs and taverns, then moved into arcades and eventually the home, and they had effects on all of them: they changed behaviours and got written into our lives in subtle ways. His introduction of the Chuck E Cheese pizza restaurant chain, which combined family eating with a video game arcade, brilliantly monetised the ways that games, although graphically simple, had worked their way from the TV screen to dinner table conversation. We laugh about how the original VCS console had wood panelling, but this was a deliberate attempt to ape the aesthetics of the 1970s living room, with its wooden furniture, TV and stereo cabinets. Atari understood that assimilation would be a vital element of success.
Even now, in this age of near photorealism, video games rely on the kind of abstractions that Atari perfected. The heart symbols to denote the number of lives we have left; the heavy use of icons and exterior narratives; the endless references to familiar cinema tropes. We saw Atari being played on TV shows and films, we saw Atari in comics. While its games were still being drawn with two sprites each a single byte in size, the iconography of Atari was out there in the world. It’s something Nintendo would learn from, and later Sony, with its cultural melting pot of a console: the PlayStation. Atari was a myth maker too: from the Easter egg hidden in Adventure to the buried copies of E.T. in the California desert, the company itself became a source of digital folklore that took on meanings beyond anything portrayed on your TV.
50 years ago, Atari began to show us that games exist in a strange liminal space between the screen and the brain, and they are constantly able to escape. The dots on the screen are only ever part of the picture, and the picture never stops moving.
What to play
While we’re in a nostalgic mood, I’m really enjoying Capcom Fighting Collection. You’d probably expect a dozen famous titles from the Street Fighter series, but that’s already been covered by Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection. Instead, we get five games from the spooky, goth-infused Darkstalkers series, the mid-1990s fantasy-themed Red Earth and a bunch of offbeat Street Fighter dalliances including the ridiculously compelling Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, which brilliantly combined fighting game dynamics with … Tetris. The games are filled with blistering attacks and truly imaginative character designs, all lovingly updated for the modern era.
Available on: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One Approximate playtime: As long as you want
What to read
Eurogamer is running a whole series of features for Pride, including this piece talking to Captain Fluke about being the first openly trans esports commentator and this one on the joy of gay fan faction and mods. Elsewhere, IGN has listed its favourite ever LGBT+ characters in video games.
Verge has a really interesting piece on a group of creatives making branded worlds for big companies in Fortnite. Everyone talks about Facebook when referencing the coming era of the metaverse, but I’m pretty sure Fortnite is going to be just as important as an explorable shared space for interconnected worlds – and the advertising potential therein.
We also found out this week that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creative genius behind Dark Souls and Elden Ring, is almost finished on his next project. This is good news for me as, after 225 hours, I’m nearing the end of Elden Ring and would be very happy to slide straight into his next game if possible.
If I’ve got you interested in Atari’s design and illustration philosophy, The Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino is a gorgeous book. For a more technical analysis of the company, try Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost.
This week’s question comes from Tim and his daughter Caitlin, and is answered by Keza:
“We got really into Hades over lockdown, loving the ‘it’s the same each time but really different too’ concept as well as the lore and the artwork. Can you recommend a similar game that we could play together?”
Hades is what’s known as a roguelike – one of those games where you have to start again from the beginning each time, but each playthrough throws different challenges at you – and, happily for you both, this genre has been having a moment over the past few years. Hades is a contender for the very best game in this genre, so it’s hard to rival, but here are some others to try.
Dead Cells is a kind of cyberpunk-fantasy action game where you gradually explore a shapeshifting castle; Spelunky 2 has you delving down below the Earth through caves full of amusing hazards, and has a great sense of humour (you can also play co-op); Into the Breach is something a little different, a strategy game where you have to defend the world from hostile invaders, travelling back in time after each failed attempt. And for a story and art style as good as that of Hades with a different gameplay feel, try developer Supergiant’s previous games Pyre,Transistor and Bastion, if you haven’t already.
China is claiming that as of Wednesday, its Tianwen-1 Mars orbiter has officially photographed the entire Red Planet. And it’s shown off new photos of the southern polar cap and a volcano to prove it.
“It has acquired the medium-resolution image data covering the whole globe of Mars, with all of its scientific payloads realizing a global survey,” state-sponsored media quoted the China National Space Administration (CNSA) announcing.
Among the images are one of Mount Askra with its crater, shots of the South Pole whose ice sheet is believed to consist of solid carbon dioxide and ice, the seven-kilometer deep Valles Marineris canyon, and the geomorphological characteristics of the rim of the Mund crater.
Mount Askela. Click to enlarge
Mars South Pole. Click to enlarge
Valles Marineris. Click to enlarge
Mund crater. Click to enlarge
Tianwen-1 had been in orbit around Mars for 706 days. The orbiter circled Mars 1,344 times, as of an announcement from CNSA. The space org said Tianwen-1 has completed its scheduled missions.
In conjunction with its rover Zhurong, Tianwen-1 amassed 1,040 gigabytes of raw scientific data through 13 onboard scientific payloads.
The mission has allowed CNSA to observe solar occultation and solar wind together with international observatories – including those in Russia, Germany, Italy, Australia and South Africa – to improve the accuracy of space weather forecasts. Good news for Matt Damon.
CNSA said it will share more scientific data with the international community in due course.
In December, Zhurong and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft performed an in-orbit relay communication test to demonstrate it was possible to relay data from Zhurong back to Earth via Mars Express. The demonstration was successful, if a bit complicated – Mars Express had to “listen” for Zhurong since the rover was unable to communicate directly because the frequencies used don’t match.
Even though the mission is officially over, the orbiter and rover are still in working order. The orbiter will stay in orbit and continue its remote sensing and data relay activities while Zhurong will hibernate until weather conditions improve – likely in December. ®