01/08/2014 02:58 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Our Future Robot Overlords Can't Even Design Decent Video Games


In December, 780 game designers competed to create the best game they could make in 48 hours as part of a "Ludlum Dare" competition. Of the contestants, 779 were human.

Angelina, an artificial intelligence (AI) built by Ph.D. candidate Michael Cook, finished 500th place out of 780 contestants in the contest. Its game, "To That Sect," takes players through a red-walled maze where they collect eerie floating "ship" tokens, while avoiding similar floating "tombs."

Cook has been working on Angelina for a while, tackling the question of whether AI's are capable of creativity. His Ph.D. supervisor at Imperial University is Simon Colton, the creator of an AI artist called "The Painting Fool." In an email correspondence with The Huffington Post, Cook said that he wanted to explore computational creativity as it related to his favorite medium: video games. "Video games have been my life since I was about five years old. I used to play them, read about them, doodle my own game designs in notebooks in primary school," Cook said.

Now, he's taught Angelina to do some of that work.

During the scoring for Ludlum Dare, Angelina's game was rated on a number of metrics. Its highest score was in "mood," where it was ranked 180/780. Remarkably, in all categories, Angelina's game achieved scores comparable to those of other competitors. Angelina only made one notable stumble: It didn't incorporate the competition's theme, "You Only Get One," smoothly into its game.

"I remember looking at the theme choices beforehand and thinking, 'If this one comes up, Angelina is screwed,'" Cook told New Scientist in early January.

"You Only Get One" was an abstract enough phrase that it stymied Angelina's usual approach to theme. To plan its game, Angelina connects key nouns in the thematic phrase to other words via Metaphor Magnet. Given the theme "You Only Get One," Angelina searched Metaphor Magnet for "One" and got about 240,000 results -- too many to usefully distill into a theme. So it designed a game around the related word "founder" instead.

In a 2013 interview with Gamasutra, Cook said his and others' work on computational creativity has often been met with ambivalence, or even hostility. "I've got colleagues who've had five-page emails from professional artists outlining why they're obviously going to fail -- why they should quit their jobs and so on," he told Gamasutra.

Angelina has been met with similar skepticism, Cook said in an email. "[People say], 'These folks are claiming they've build an AI game designer? It can barely make a single level!'" he wrote.

Angelina's newest game, though, seems to be bucking that trend. "I've been blown away by the response. 'To That Sect' has had playthroughs recorded onto YouTube, a first for Angelina. Videos have been viewed tens of thousands of times. People have used the reviews email address to send Angelina short reviews of its games, in the hope that I can use them in the future as input to the system. The project is really expanding, and that's exciting news."

Angelina's full game can be played here.