Computer programs beating humans at their own game have been all the rage in recent years, beginning with Deep Blue giving Gary Kasparov an emotionless what-for back in 1997. This might seem like a strictly modern phenomenon, but in reality the battle between man and machine has captured imaginations at least since the advent of artificial combustion. The legend of John Henry, who out-tunneled a steam-powered hammer only to have his heart explode on the far side of the mountain, illustrates that fears have been felt most acutely in industrialized societies. What is it that machines can’t do? Write screenplays? Think again. Paint a Rembrandt-style portrait? How cute. Where does humanity make its stand?
Where does humanity make its stand?
Lee “Flash” Young-ho thinks he knows the answer. After Jeff Dean, director of the DeepMind artificial intelligence project that defeated a Go champion 4-1 earlier this year, indicated that StarCraft: Brood War was next on the agenda, Flash, the greatest player in recent history, had this to say:
“Honestly, I think I can win. The difference from Baduk (Go) is both sides play in a state where you don’t know what’s happening, and you collect information—I think that point is a bit different.”
We’ll have to wait a few years to see if Flash’s confidence turns out to be warranted, but in the meantime, a lone programmer in Phoenix, Arizona may have already cracked the code of another esport: Super Smash Bros. Melee.
Dan Petro makes no secret of the fact that part of his inspiration for the SmashBot project was the arrogance of his fellow man. Someone told Petro at a tournament that “[Melee] requires too much high-level strategy and mind games … there’d be no way a computer could be really good.”
What does Petro claim he thought at that moment? “Fucking challenge accepted.”
“Fucking challenge accepted.”
A few years later, Petro appears to have made good on his promise. His SmashBot AI trounced Jeffrey “Axe” Williamson, a top-tier player, 2-0 in games so lopsided that they’re hard to watch. SmashBot perfectly powershields every attack, chain-grabs relentlessly, guards the edges of the stage without fail. Axe is reduced to spamming down-tilts like seven-year-old me trying out Tekken for the first time.
Granted, Melee is a bit easier for a computer to play than Brood War, since frame-perfect moves and glitch abuse allow even a relatively dumb program to get by on reaction alone, but it’s still no small feat that Petro’s machine was able to do away with Axe in such trivial fashion. As of right now, the only character SmashBot knows how to play against is Marth, and the only stage is the uniformly flat Final Destination, but Petro has plans to expand the program’s competence in upcoming months. When he’s finished—when SmashBot understands every character and each of competitive Melee’s six stages—there will be nothing any measly human can do to stop it. At that point it will be up to someone else to design a better SmashBot, or we may wind up in 20XX after all, where SmashBots face SmashBots and everything is decided by port priority alone.