Doctors are creative too

Dr. Anthony Jahn, otolaryngologist and volunteer medical director for the New York Metropolitan Opera, has patients with specialized needs.  He practices the art of caring for professional singers.  Whether you are a writer, a game designer, or someone pursuing a creative career, I think it’s valuable to see how others are being creative and exploring their varied interests.

Is poker the face of future AI?

In the past, chess was the target of AI (artificial intelligence) programmers.  I wrote a 4k chess player in assembly language on my old Intel 8080 computer — a Processor Technology Sol-20, to be exact.  To be even more exact, I wrote it in machine language, manipulating everything in hex code because I hadn’t yet purchased an assembler or learned how to use one.  It did played pretty well for a 1970′s microcomputer program – competing to a tie with a commercial product – but I never entered it in competition.

But chess is a game of perfect information, where the state of the game is known by all players — not to mention spectators.  I wonder if it is harder to program an AI for a game like Stratego, where the value of pieces is not known until an attack occurs?  Poker may be even more difficult, because not only are there missing pieces of information regarding other player’s cards, but their style and mode of play — including such things as bluffing and facial expression – is so integral to the game.

This may make poker an interesting game from the standpoint of creating robots that better understand humans.  Yet, there doesn’t seem to be as much press these days about poker playing software (poker bots) as there used to be about chess playing software.  Could this be because poker is usually associated with gambling?  Could it be that an AI algorithms that understand how to play poker well are worth more — and thus less sharable — than chess algorithms?  Or has AI press in general been dominated by science fiction themes of workers losing jobs?

I was just wondering, because it occurred to me that from a video games and AI developer perspective, it seems that poker bots are a very interesting challenge.  It’s not that there isn’t a lot happening in the field — such as this computer poker bot competition — it’s just that I don’t see a lot of press on the subject.  Even the Wikipedia “Computer Poker Players” listing is quite a bit shorter than the “Computer Chess” listing.

IBM’s Watson got plenty of press regarding playing Jeopardy.  Does this mean that the press thinks poker is not as interesting to the future of AI?  I don’t know.

Introverts on Mars

The Atlantic recently published an article entitled, “Extroverts Don’t Belong on Mars.”  So introverts do?  If so, then some software engineers might fit the bill.  As the article points out, programmers might be “really sick of the open-plan offices here on Earth.”  I can just picture it now, a bunch of engineers fighting over who gets the only or best office on Mars.

I never programmed in an open-plan office, nor would I want to.  Well, maybe that’s not entirely true.  At Mattel Electronics around 1979-1980 we had a large building with a large open space for game developers, but we did our best to surround our desks with large file cabinets, plants, and anything else that might give us a bit of privacy.  After all, we also needed a little protection from remote control cars careening around the office.

I’ve always had a fascination with the planet Mars and its moons, maybe partially because I like the remoteness of the place.  Though I doubt I’ll be going there in my lifetime, I thoroughly enjoy writing science fiction stories like my award nominated “A Comic on Phobos”. 

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Cli-fi popularity on the rise

What’s cli-fi?  It’s fiction, often science fiction, that’s climate related.  The first cli-fi I remember reading was Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear”.  It wasn’t one of his best novels, and it has mixed reviews, but I enjoyed it because it made me think about what I know and don’t know about climate change.  In my own writing, my short story “Above the Mississippi” in my e-book “Science Fiction: The Arts” is a cli-fi story — though I didn’t know the term cli-fi when I wrote it.  It’s a Mark Twain like story in a science fiction setting.

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A Beautiful Path

30 years ago I designed and developed “Truckin’”.  I wanted players to deal with travelling salesman or shortest path problems, without thinking of that as a math problem.  During testing, I saw a number of players come up with excellent paths over the roads to reduce time while delivering goods.  Even with the limited number of routes and roads in the games, many players enjoyed the challenge.  Now researchers have developed new algorithms to find not the shortest route, but rather the most beautiful route.  Think there’s a game idea there?  Maybe.  In any case, I’m looking forward to being able to do a map routing online for a vacation by searching for the most beautiful route between cities rather than the fastest route.

Self Driving Cars

Bits on The NY Times blog had a nice piece recently about the challenges of self driving cars.  While it may not be easy to bring self driving cars to city streets, small trip electric automated cars may eventually replace subways and light rail for lots of people who want to go exactly from point A to point B.  Taxis will remain competitive until such time that small trip automated cars can provide rides cheaper and safer.  I have no idea what the time frame will be, but I think it may soon make sense for city leaders who are evaluating future transportation needs to consider how small trip automated cars will fit into the mix.  Mercedes (below) and others are working on self driving cars for the highways, but if car manufacturers can beat the issues for city driving too, the rewards may be huge.

Math and Movies

My love of mathematics is what drove me to a variety of careers in education, game development, software engineering, and science fiction writing.  I often enjoy solving math problems and reading about recent research in mathematics.  If you share my interest in all things math, you might also enjoy this Harvard website I discovered that lists “Mathematics in Movies“.  I’m not sure why they don’t list “The Day the Earth Stood Still” or “Torn Curtain”, so I suggested these as possible additions.  In the trailer below of “Torn Curtain” you’ll see the math scene at about 1:40 into the video.

Microsurgeon makes list of top 10 Intellivision games

It’s nice to see that my classic video game “Microsurgeon” recently made the Retro Gamer Team’s top 10 list of Mattel Intellivision games.  I’m also glad that they picked two other fun Imagic Intellivision games, “Demon Attack” and “Dracula”.  I didn’t know until I saw this 1980′s Sears Catalog video game advertisement on The Retroist website that the ad incorrectly says “Microsurgery” instead of “Microsurgeon”.  Below, the Museum of Classic Chicago Television shows an old Imagic advertisement for Microsurgeon and a few of the other games.

The Best of E3 2014 and “Corpse Killer”?

So why do I think that CNet’s “Best of E3 2014” and the old Digital Pictures game “Corpse Killer” have anything in common?  Because when I saw the game “Dead Island 2″, I immediately thought of the game (“Corpse Killer”) that Ken Soohoo and Ken Melville created at Digital Pictures in 1994 for the Sega CD.  I suppose zombies will never go out of style.

Where do game ideas come from?

If you are an aspiring game designer, then please don’t limit your knowledge or your visions.  Good game ideas can come from any field of study.  For example, if you had enjoyed solving maze puzzles and studied shortest path algorithms many years ago, you might have invented Pacman.  Growing up, I enjoyed going on family driving trips and seeing the trucks go by on the freeway, which lead to my interest in later developing the game Imagic “Truckin’”.  You might not realize it immediately, but an understanding of the travelling salesman problem would help you in playing this game.  To my knowledge, no one — including me — has ever done an analysis of the game to see what the best routes are for the best payoffs.  One of these days I should take a look at that.  Speaking of game ideas from anywhere, maybe the 6th International Meeting on Origami in Science, Mathematics and Education (6OSME) at the University of Tokyo will generate some great game ideas for attending game designers.

Eternal hope for the driverless car?

Are we all so in love with the idea of a car that will drive for us, that we underestimate how long it’s going to be before self driving cars are a reality?  John Markoff recently blogged a piece entitled “Police, Pedestrians and the Social Ballet of Merging: The Real Challenges for Self-Driving Cars.”  Though Google and others continue to do useful and important research on self driving cars, this blog entry brings up some interesting issues.  If you enjoy reading about robots, particularly fiction, you might enjoy my science fiction e-book of published short stories entitled “Science Fiction: Robots & Cyborgs“.

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Death in The Fog

The Fog, also known as The Internet of Things, will eventually contain untold numbers of sensors and devices that work continuously or at intervals over periods of years, decades, or even longer.  Computerworld recently reported that In-Q-Tel’s Dan Geer warned “The longer lived these devices, the surer it will be that they will be hijacked within their lifetime.”

We’re not talking about a simple toaster that lasts long past it’s expected lifetime, but rather smart devices and sensors – even autonomous vehicles — that essentially have a life of their own.  Unfortunately, there will be hackers who will try to break their security.  Society will have to deal with these things.  How long should such a device be expected to survive?  What are the rules that define why one device should be allowed to run longer than another?  Who should be held responsible if programmed death — or perhaps as we’ve called it in the past, planned obsolescence — is not included as a feature in one of these things?

This has been the stuff of science fiction in the past and present, but it will become reality very soon.  Governments, legal systems, and society will have to deal with these things.

Another spooky action at a distance

Almost everyone has heard of Einstein’s description of quantum entanglement as spooky action at a distance.  Now, we have a new kind of spooky action at a distance.  According to The Scientist magazine reporting on interferon signaling, “Interferons released by infected cells typically only travel nanometers to alert neighboring cells. In this study, interferon responses appeared more than a million times farther away.”

It is not known how these messages are transmitted so far and quickly.  Is it possible that it has something to do with quantum entanglement?  That’s doubtful, but it might provide food for science fiction thought.

How to keep up on games research and development

I recently commented in a Game Developers group on LinkedIn about how to keep up on games research and development.  The response to my remarks was very positive, so I thought I’d share my thoughts here as well.

Gamasutra.com, IGN.com, GameSpot.com are some good places to keep up with video games news. As for research, websites tend to be category specific. GamesforHealth.org is the website for the conference that covers Health-related games and research. There are many others like that for AI, Social Media, Education, and other games related research. Even Variety.com has some game-related news, in case you want entertainment/Hollywood oriented games news. If you want science-only research, you might try going to http://arxiv.org/ now and then searching on “games”.  There are usually quite a few in-depth research publications related to an aspect of games and/or serious games. The ACM offers http://cie.acm.org/games/?searchterm=games and IEEE Spectrum provides game news and research on games at http://spectrum.ieee.org/consumer-electronics/gaming. IEEE and ACM also have endless conferences and special interest groups related to games.

For example, this week I found an arxiv research paper on “Solving Triangular Peg Solitaire“, a more generalized version of the Cracker Barrel peg game shown below.  You never know when something like this could lead to later insights on some new game concepts or even a science fiction short story idea.

Links to “Edge of Tomorrow”

I was repairing broken links on my website today and in the process ran into a recent review of the movie “Edge of Tomorrow” that said it was fast and furious.  As a science fiction writer, particularly one who enjoys spinning or reading a good time travel story, I usually take notice of a movie that examines alternate histories.  My e-book, “Science Fiction: Time Travel” is my best selling anthology.

The repeat-the-day theme shown in the trailer for “Edge of Tomorow” brings to mind the movie “Source Code“. What made “Source Code” most enjoyable to me was the relationships between Gyllenhaal and Monaghan, as well as Gyllenhaal and Farmiga. Ultimately, “Source Code” also worked because it made one consider the scientific (alternate reality or timeline), philosophical (saving one versus saving many), and theological aspects of the story. The fact that “Edge of Tomorrow” is fast and furious may make for terrific summer popcorn entertainment — not to mention, put Cruise in a category with Vin Diesel (hee hee).  Actually, I love a good summer popcorn movie.  But this is a science fiction movie that involves time travel, so I’m hoping for more.

Disc golf inspiration

I’ve always enjoyed a good hike in the park, and more recently discovered the sport of disc golf.  I had played and enjoyed Frisbee golf on the campus of UC Irvine back in the early 1980′s, but until about 8 years ago I had not considered playing again.  When I began to notice chained baskets in the park, I realized that the sport was taking off around the country.  While I’m old enough now that a close to 300 ft. drive is a rare achievement for me, I love to play.  The challenge is part of it, but even more so I think it inspires my creativity.  Having to design shots on the fly that will go left-to-right, right-to-left, sail under a forest of tree branches, pass straight through a gauntlet of trees with a creek, fly over the top of a hill, or extend all the way down a steep hill and bank dogleg left or right at the end of flight, not only tests my physical skills but requires me to examine my options.

Whether I’m authoring a new short story or designing a game or solving a mathematics problem, I find I need some of the same thinking processes.  So whatever your pursuits in life that require creative thinking skills, I recommend disc golf and a walk in the park as a warm-up exercise.  Below is one of my best drives ever, playing hole #17 recently at Crooked Creek Park near Chapin, South Carolina.  I played the right disc (Opto Diamond by Latitude 64) at the right time that day.