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StarCraft II-playing AI AlphaStar takes out pros undefeated – TechCrunch

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Losing to the computer in StarCraft has been a tradition of mine since the first game came out in 1998. Of course, the built-in “AI” is trivial for serious players to beat, and for years researchers have attempted to replicate human strategy and skill in the latest version of the game. They’ve just made a huge leap with AlphaStar, which recently beat two leading pros 5-0.

The new system was created by DeepMind, and in many ways it’s very unlike what you might call a “traditional” StarCraft AI. The computer opponents you can select in the game are really pretty dumb — they have basic built-in strategies, and know in general how to attack and defend and how to progress down the tech tree. But they lack everything that makes a human player strong: adaptability, improvisation and imagination.

AlphaStar is different. It learned from watching humans play at first, but soon honed its skills by playing against facets of itself.

The first iterations watched replays of games to learn the basics of “micro” (i.e. controlling units effectively) and “macro” (i.e. game economy and long-term goals) strategy. With this knowledge it was able to beat the in-game computer opponents on their hardest setting 95 percent of the time. But as any pro will tell you, that’s child’s play. So the real work started here.

Hundreds of agents were spawned and pitted against each other.

Because StarCraft is such a complex game, it would be silly to think that there’s a single optimal strategy that works in all situations. So the machine learning agent was essentially split into hundreds of versions of itself, each given a slightly different task or strategy. One might attempt to achieve air superiority at all costs; another to focus on teching up; another to try various “cheese” attempts like worker rushes and the like. Some were even given strong agents as targets, caring about nothing else but beating an already successful strategy.

This family of agents fought and fought for hundreds of years of in-game time (undertaken in parallel, of course). Over time the various agents learned (and of course reported back) various stratagems, from simple things such as how to scatter units under an area-of-effect attack to complex multi-pronged offenses. Putting them all together produced the highly robust AlphaStar agent, with some 200 years of gameplay under its belt.

Most StarCraft II pros are well younger than 200, so that’s a bit of an unfair advantage. There’s also the fact that AlphaStar, in its original incarnation anyway, has two other major benefits.

First, it gets its information directly from the game engine, rather than having to observe the game screen — so it knows instantly that a unit is down to 20 HP without having to click on it. Second, it can (though it doesn’t always) perform far more “actions per minute” than a human, because it isn’t limited by fleshy hands and banks of buttons. APM is just one measure among many that determines the outcome of a match, but it can’t hurt to be able to command a guy 20 times in a second rather than two or three.

It’s worth noting here that AIs for micro control have existed for years, having demonstrated their prowess in the original StarCraft. It’s incredibly useful to be able to perfectly cycle out units in a firefight so none takes lethal damage, or to perfectly time movements so no attacker is idle, but the truth is good strategy beats good tactics pretty much every time. A good player can counter the perfect micro of an AI and take that valuable tool out of play.

AlphaStar was matched up against two pro players, MaNa and TLO of the highly competitive Team Liquid. It beat them both handily, and the pros seemed excited rather than depressed by the machine learning system’s skill. Here’s game 2 against MaNa:

In comments after the game series, MaNa said:

I was impressed to see AlphaStar pull off advanced moves and different strategies across almost every game, using a very human style of gameplay I wouldn’t have expected. I’ve realised how much my gameplay relies on forcing mistakes and being able to exploit human reactions, so this has put the game in a whole new light for me. We’re all excited to see what comes next.

And TLO, who actually is a Zerg main but gamely played Protoss for the experiment:

I was surprised by how strong the agent was. AlphaStar takes well-known strategies and turns them on their head. The agent demonstrated strategies I hadn’t thought of before, which means there may still be new ways of playing the game that we haven’t fully explored yet.

You can get the replays of the matches here.

AlphaStar is inarguably a strong player, but there are some important caveats here. First, when they handicapped the agent by making it play like a human, in that it had to move the camera around, could only click on visible units, had a human-like delay on perception and so on, it was far less strong and in fact was beaten by MaNa. But that version, which perhaps may become the benchmark rather than its untethered cousin, is still under development, so for that and other reasons it was never going to be as strong.

AlphaStar only plays Protoss, and the most successful versions of itself used very micro-heavy units.

Most importantly, though, AlphaStar is still an extreme specialist. It only plays Protoss versus Protoss — probably has no idea what a Zerg looks like — with a single opponent, on a single map. As anyone who has played the game can tell you, the map and the races produce all kinds of variations, which massively complicate gameplay and strategy. In essence, AlphaStar is playing only a tiny fraction of the game — though admittedly many players also specialize like this.

That said, the groundwork of designing a self-training agent is the hard part — the actual training is a matter of time and computing power. If it’s 1v1v1 on Bloodbath maybe it’s stalker/zealot time, while if it’s 2v2 on a big map with lots of elevation, out come the air units. (Is it obvious I’m not up on my SC2 strats?)

The project continues and AlphaStar will grow stronger, naturally, but the team at DeepMind thinks that some of the basics of the system, for instance how it efficiently visualizes the rest of the game as a result of every move it makes, could be applied in many other areas where AIs must repeatedly make decisions that affect a complex and long-term series of outcomes.

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Marvel drops first teaser for Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings

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Simu Liu stars as a martial artist trying to escape his past in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

A young man who once trained as an assassin for a Chinese criminal organization discovers just how hard it can be to escape one’s past in the first teaser for Marvel Studios’ upcoming film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings, part of the MCU’s Phase Four. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, it is the first Marvel film to feature an Asian lead—Simu Liu, best known for his role as Jung Kim on the sitcom Kim’s Convenience—as well as a predominantly Asian/Asian diaspora cast and crew.

The title character first appeared in a Marvel comic in 1973, after the company had tried and failed to acquire the comic book rights for the popular 1970s TV show Kung Fu (starring David Carradine). Modeled in part on Bruce Lee, Shang-Chi was originally the son of Chinese criminal mastermind Dr. Fu Manchu, trained in martial arts since childhood to become an assassin. After Marvel lost the rights to the Fu Manchu character, Shang-Chi’s paternity became murkier, but the international crime lord theme was common—although his father was revealed to be an ancient immortal sorcerer in the Secret Avengers storyline.

Shang-Chi has not traditionally had special superpowers, but his training in multiple styles of martial arts and assorted weaponry makes him a formidable opponent and a useful ally. Plus, he is a master of chi, making him even stronger and faster—fast enough to dodge bullets. When he eventually joins forces with the Avengers in the comics, Tony Stark gives him a pair of bracelets to further focus his chi (as well as some snazzy high-tech nunchaku).

Back in the 1980s, Stan Lee had preliminary discussions with the late actor Brandon Lee about portraying Shang-Chi in a film adaptation, but no concrete project ever transpired. The Ten Rings organization was briefly name-checked in 2008’s Iron Man, and the infamous Marvel supervillain the Mandarin made an appearance in Iron Man 3—or rather, Ben Kingsley played Trevor Slattery, an imposter posing as the Mandarin. For Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel created an entirely new character, Wenwu, who has gone by many names over the years—including the Mandarin.

In addition to Liu, the film stars Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) as Shang-Chi’s best friend, Katy, and none other than Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung (Hard Boiled, Chungking Express, Hero, and so on) as his father, Wenwu, aka the Mandarin. Meng’er Zhang plays Xialing, Shang-Chi’s estranged sister; Florian Munteanu (Creed II, Borderlands) plays Razor Fist; Ronny Chieng (Crazy Rich Asians, Bliss) plays another pal, Jon Jon; and Fala Chen (The Undoing) plays Jiang Li. Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: Discovery) plays a character named Jiang Nan, having previously played a different MCU role (Aleta Ogord) in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. There’s also a masked character dubbed Death Dealer; Marvel has not yet revealed who plays him.

Based on this teaser and what little is known so far, the film appears to borrow a few elements from the Ultimate Marvel universe, among other storylines, and possibly the wuxia-inspired Secret Wars (2015) as well. We hear Leung’s voice as the Mandarin in a voiceover, admonishing his son for “wasting” the last 10 years. Shang-Chi works as a parking valet for a posh hotel when he isn’t hanging out with Katy singing karaoke tunes.

That carefree existence is about to end. “I trained you so the most dangerous people in the world couldn’t kill you,” we hear the Mandarin say. “But it’s time for you to take your place by my side.” Shang-Chi stubbornly refuses the offer—or is it a command? He just might learn, as his father says, that “you can’t outrun who you really are.”

Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings is currently slated for release on September 3, 2021. As of this writing, it will be solely a theatrical release.

Listing image by YouTube/Marvel

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Sony reverses course, keeps legacy PlayStation online stores open

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The store has received a stay of execution on the PS3 and Vita…

Just three weeks ago, Sony announced its plans to shut down the digital stores for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, and PlayStation Vita, effective this summer. Today, Sony partially reversed course, with Sony Interactive Entertainment President and CEO Jim Ryan writing in a blog post that “it’s clear that we made the wrong decision here.”

As such, the PS4 and Vita online stores will continue operations, Ryan said, while the PSP store will still shut down as planned on July 2. PS3 and Vita players will continue to be able to purchase games through the hardware itself, while web-based versions of those stores will seemingly remain closed following their shutdown last month.

“When we initially came to the decision to end purchasing support for PS3 and PS Vita, it was born out of a number of factors, including commerce support challenges for older devices and the ability for us to focus more of our resources on newer devices where a majority of our gamers are playing on,” Ryan wrote. “We see now that many of you are incredibly passionate about being able to continue purchasing classic games on PS3 and PS Vita for the foreseeable future, so I’m glad we were able to find a solution to continue operations.”

Ryan didn’t set any new timeline for the PS3 and Vita store support, so it’s not clear just how long of a reprieve this will be in the end. But nothing lasts forever in the world of corporate-controlled servers, as shown by the continuation of plans to shut down the PSP store. That will come over 16 years after the PSP launched in North America and nearly 13 years after the PSP first got support for direct game downloads through a firmware update. Sony officially stopped producing PSP hardware in Japan in 2014, while PS3 production lasted until 2017 and Vita production lasted until 2019.

A sigh of relief

In the wake of Sony’s closure announcement, many online sources had begun compiling lists of the best games to download before the legacy PlayStation Store stores went offline for good. A VGC analysis suggested over 2,000 digital-only titles would become inaccessible if those stores shut down, including 138 that were not available on any other platforms. Other observers noted how piracy would become the only way to preserve some of these games in the wake of the shutdown.

As The Gamer noted, the planned Vita store shutdown also threatened to stop the production of some Vita games that were (and now are) still in development. “We’re way past the point where it makes a ton of financial sense to release on Vita, but it’s one of my all-time favorite consoles and I wanted to release a game on it before everything shut down,” Spooky Squid Games developer Miguel Sternberg told the site regarding a planned Vita port of Russian Subway Dogs.

Sony has still remained silent on a longer-term problem that could eventually make digital PS3 titles and all PS4 titles unplayable if and when Sony decides to stop supporting those consoles’ PSN connections. Recent testing by concerned players suggests that same problem could affect all digital PS5 games and some physical PS5 discs at an unknown point in the future.

Sony’s decision to change course comes months after Microsoft quickly reversed plans to raise the price of Xbox Live after strong fan backlash to the idea. “We messed up today and you were right to let us know,” Microsoft said of that turnaround.

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Nintendo sues Bowser (not that one) over Team Xecuter’s Switch hacks

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Enlarge / A prototype SX Core device soldered to a Nintendo Switch motherboard.

Team Xeceuter

Months after his arrest on 11 felony counts last year, Nintendo has filed a civil lawsuit against Gary “GaryOPA” Bowser, the leader of notorious Switch hacking group Team Xecuter, in a Seattle federal court.

The suit (as obtained by Polygon) seeks significant monetary damages and disgorgement of all profits from Team Xecuter’s sale of the piracy-enabling SX OS software and a line of hardware devices that use various exploits to install the OS on Switch units. The suit alleges that “at one point, the SX OS was pre-installed on 89% of modded/hacked Nintendo Switch products available for sale,” though the suit doesn’t provide a source for that number.

The lawsuit calls out Bowser as “one of only a handful of key members of Team Xecuter,” and it quotes Ars’ own assessment (without credit) that Bowser is “the closest thing to a public face for the team of coders and foreign manufacturers that made up the [Team Xecuter] supply chain.” In promoting and selling SX OS, Bowser “worked with a network of developers; established a distribution chain of resellers, testers, and websites; and designed the marketing and content of other public-facing websites for Team Xecuter,” the suit alleges.

The Team Xecuter website (and a number of URLs that pointed to it) were “largely under [Bowser’s] control,” according to the lawsuit. A handful of hand-picked moderators also provided assistance. The suit notes that “after Defendant’s arrest, no additional posts were ever made to Team-xecuter.com.” That site, which remained up as recently as January, has started returning a database connection error in recent months.

Bowser has “continued to thumb his nose at the law,” Nintendo says, providing circumvention tools to resellers and “forcing Nintendo into a game of whack-a-mole” to try to shut down their distribution at the retail level.

A history of hacking

Team Xecuter has been involved in the console hacking scene since the days of the original Xbox. The group drew its fair share of controversy in that scene even before Bowser and two of his associates were arrested as part of an international manhunt last October.

That’s in part because the group profits from what are otherwise generally open source efforts to identify and publicize vulnerabilities in console hardware. Team Xecuter also markets its devices with a specific focus on decrypting and copying legitimate software, while open source hackers tend to keep the focus on installing homebrew software and custom firmware that doesn’t directly enable piracy.

In 2018, Kate Temkin, who worked with Team ReSwitched on the Switch’s original Fusee Gelée exploit, told Ars that she “strongly disagree[s] with the idea of hiding software exploits and then releasing modchips that use (potentially obfuscated) versions of them,” as Team Xecuter does. “I think it’s both unethical—as it gives malicious actors a chance to pick up and use the vulnerabilities before they can be addressed or public knowledge can spread—and against the spirit of knowledge-exchange we want to see in the console-hacking community.”

Aside from monetary damages that could easily run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, Nintendo is asking that Bowser give up his control of the Team Xecuter website and its URLs and turn over every SX OS hacking device in his possession.

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