On the Ball

On the Ball: Man Versus Machine

Jordan Deam | 7 Apr 2010 21:00
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It's a point I hadn't considered until then, and it actually makes a lot of sense. In chess, a game of pure strategy without the need for reflexes, the evidence suggests that computers don't have much of an advantage (if, indeed, they have one at all). When Gary Kasparov played Deep Blue in 1997, he lost his six-game match by a single point, besting the powerful mainframe computer once and drawing three times (and that was after soundly defeating the previous iteration of the hardware). It's a close call at this point, but for the time being, it appears that the human intelligence is still a match for its artificial counterpart.

But StarCraft requires more than deep strategy - in addition to picking the right move at any given moment to give yourself an advantage over your opponent, you must execute dozens of individual commands every second to make sure you're exploiting your available resources to the fullest extent possible. The best players register roughly 300 to 400 actions per minute, meaning they're constantly selecting between their various units and structures and picking the best course of action, whether it's hatching a few more Mutalisks, executing a psionic storm on a cluster of enemy troops or shifting a group of tanks into siege mode. Human intelligence simply isn't enough - this is the computer's terrain, and without the need of a mouse or keyboard, an A.I. program could execute these actions pretty much simultaneously.

Why, then, aren't we watching StarCraft Battle Reports of matches between rival A.I.s rather than the human matches we see now? Wouldn't the highest-level play come from combatants who could focus solely on the game's strategic elements without having to worry about the physically actions required to execute those strategies? In short, why doesn't StarCraft have its Deep Blue, an A.I. so dominant that it leaves the best players in the world in its dust?

I suspect it's because Blizzard knows that such a program would virtually dismantle the competitive StarCraft scene as it exists now - that, and A.I. matches simply aren't as much fun to watch. Human players have stories, like the one Staebell tells in his piece this week. They have emotions - like pride, anger and, especially in StarCraft's case, panic - that make them inherently more interesting to spectators. But, strictly on machine terms, they do not have über-micro.

So, is StarCraft a sport (or "e-sport," as it were)? I'm still not sure. But if it is, it may be one where actual human players would be relegated to the minor leagues if some enterprising programmers decided to try to create an unbeatable opponent - and there's little point in playing when the best you can hope for is second place.

Jordan Deam does not have über-micro. In fact, he doesn't even have unter-micro.

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