Full circle: The whirlwind journey of Jaedong

[This article was originally published on ESPN.com/esports on January 12, 2017.]

The year is 2008, and the world is suddenly not what it was.

You are in Seoul, South Korea, in a small television studio, giggling teens play hooky on a weekday afternoon. There’s a stage a few feet in front of them with a TV desk framed by two glass-enclosed booths, each large enough to fit a single person sitting down.

The house lights dim, the cameras start rolling, the announcers take their places at the desk, and two quiet-looking young men in racing-style jerseys enter each booth after shaking hands. An enormous screen above the stage comes to life.

The screen shows scenes of an alien landscape, but to those in attendance, it is as familiar as a map of their own neighborhood. It’s StarCraft, a popular computer game that has entertained players for years across the world. But here, those who came to fill the studio’s stands are not playing right now – they’re watching. And the intense faces of the men on stage clearly show that this is not just for fun.

For a first-time observer, the experience would be akin to a casual pickup basketball player watching an NBA game for the first time and being treated to Kobe Bryant or LeBron James’ mastery of the ball and the court. Teens gasp and cheer as the announcers in suits shout unabashedly as if calling the blow-by-blow of a title fight.

They won’t believe you back at home. But that’s OK, because you’ve just seen the future, and it’s going to be the coolest thing ever.

Continue reading “Full circle: The whirlwind journey of Jaedong”

Google’s DeepMind AI takes on StarCraft II

[This article was originally published on ESPN.com/esports on Nov 27, 2016.]

It’s match point at the grand finals of a huge StarCraft II tournament. One player booth contains a professional Zerg player complete with massive headphones and stoic concentration. The other booth is … empty. After Zerg wins in the late game with an unexpected tech switch to infestor/broodlord, the crowd goes wild. The pro player comes out on stage and accepts a huge trophy. They are proud not only of winning, but of dealing a blow to their opponent the likes of which could contribute to technology benefiting millions of people worldwide.

At BlizzCon earlier this month in Anaheim, California, Blizzard announced an ambitious new project in collaboration with DeepMind, a leading artificial intelligence research company acquired by Google in 2014. After creating the AlphaGo AI that bested the world’s top Go player earlier this year, DeepMind’s next groundbreaking challenge will be StarCraft II. If DeepMind is able to build an AI that could learn how to beat top players such as Byun “ByuN” Hyun Woo in the complex real-time strategy, tactics and resource management of this game, it would be a giant step forward in AI research. And with DeepMind’s interest in using its research to solve hard problems in areas such as healthcareand energy efficiency on a massive scale, this Starcraft II project could impact the whole world.

Continue reading “Google’s DeepMind AI takes on StarCraft II”