There’s a bit of Seattle gaming history threaded through a new artificial intelligence training game unveiled on Tuesday.

Iconary, which pairs humans and software in a drawing-and-guessing game from the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, was inspired by Pictionary, invented in Seattle more than three decades ago by a then-24-year-old Rob Angel and collaborators.

We asked Angel to check out Iconary, which differs in fundamental ways from other games like chess and Go where artificial intelligence can beat the best of humanity.

“I forgot it was A.I. because I got so engaged with it, and that’s a positive,” Angel said.

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A game based on the subtle linguistic and visual cues exchanged between drawer and guesser presents a much more realistic challenge for computer scientists building A.I. systems that they hope will one day interact and collaborate with humans naturally, the Allen Institute researchers said.

Angel recalled making Pictionary to recreate the feeling he had playing board games growing up in the 1970s: “the fun, the interaction, the collaboration, the camaraderie of what I remember playing games as a kid.”

The collaborative aspect — “it’s not me against you, it’s us as a team against another team,” Angel said — was a major attribute the A.I. researchers sought.

Also, playing Pictionary relies on subtle, hard-to-define aspects of human communication. “It wasn’t knowledge-based. It wasn’t the smartest who wins, or even the best artist,” Angel said.

The game taps into intangible attributes of communication that remain largely beyond the reach of A.I. systems today. Recreating that in a software system represents an enormous challenge.

Pictionary was a huge hit, selling an estimated 38 million copies in 60 countries between its launch in 1985 and its purchase by Mattel in 2001, Angel said. He guessed that millions more have been sold since.

Angel is finishing a book covering his experience creating Pictionary. “Game Changer,” to be published by an imprint of Mascot Books, is due out later this year, he said.

Was he surprised to see Pictionary inspire this attempt to train A.I. systems?

“Nothing is static,” Angel said. “Life and technology and the world progresses, and this is almost a natural progression … a new way to communicate, a new way to feel some emotion.”


Game on! Playing drawing game Iconary connects AllenAI computer with humans’ common sense

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