Still, GPT-2 has been employed to develop a kind of Dungeon Master. In December 2019, Nick Walton, an undergraduate at Brigham Young University specializing in machine learning, created a text adventure game, AI Dungeon, using GPT-2 to generate open-ended scenarios.

Walton says he first played Dungeons & Dragons a few months before building AI Dungeon, and the board game was part of the inspiration. “One thing that’s so cool about Dungeons & Dragons is that you can do anything, and the Dungeon Master can decide what happens as a result of that,” he says. “You can be so creative compared to other games.”

Playing AI Dungeon often feels more like a maddening improv session than a text adventure, because the algorithm veers off in bizarre directions and quickly loses the plot. Even so, Walton says more than 1.3 million people have played his game, some racking up more than 30 hours of gameplay. “There are definitely users who, like, this is their jam,” he says. “Like, this is what they’ve been waiting for.”

In fact, while players can currently donate money to AI Dungeon through Patreon, Walton says he recently decided that instead of joining a self-driving car startup he will turn AI Dungeon into a commercial effort.

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New approaches, such as those outlined in Martin’s research, might help produce text adventure games or Dungeon Masters that are more coherent and compelling. But even if it were possible to build a perfectly convincing AI Dungeon Master, some experts caution that this certainly wouldn’t reflect true intelligence or mastery of language. That’s because these programs aren’t connecting the meaning of text to anything.

“The problem is that natural language processing is nowhere near extracting or manipulating meaning from text,” says Simone Teufel, a professor who works on AI and language at the University of Cambridge in the UK. “But it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking that something ‘intelligent’ is going on.”

In fact, Tuefel thinks the current infatuation with statistical, machine learning methods will ultimately result in disappointment. “The first wave of AI failed circa 1985 because it was naive and ambitious, and it didn’t realize just how complex language and communication was,” she says. “The second wave of AI, right now, is soon going to fail because too much trickery and even self-trickery is used.”

Still, who knows, with D&D experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to Stranger Things-style 80s nostalgia, perhaps the game could even capture the public’s imagination as the next big challenge for AI.

Martin also hopes the effort might also reveal something about the way storytelling taps into elements of intelligence such as commonsense, embodiment, and imagination. “If we could create a convincing AI DM, it would tell us more about how we create and experience these worlds,” she says.

Anyone who’s reached for a 20-sided die as their character is attacked by a “displacer beast” or a “gelatinous cube” might just find an artificial Dungeon Master fun, especially if they’re struggling to find enough people for a good quest.

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