Why the Elon Musk-Backed OpenAI Group Is Focusing on Breaking Atari 2600 High Scores

OpenAI launched its Gym beta today for coders.


The nonprofit OpenAI, along with the support of Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, believes artificial intelligence and machine learning can advance a lot faster if people start programming A.I. to crack high scores in Atari 2600 games.

That’s because artificial intelligence programs, like the tech industry itself, suffer from a diversity problem. OpenAI says there are essentially two problems with programming A.I. right now: There’s not enough variety, and the language to communicate with other developers is not the same.

The OpenAI Gym beta, launched today, claims it can fix both of those problems. It’s a development toolkit for those in the A.I. community, and challenges coders to come up with solutions to myriad of problems, including programming a virtual cart to balance a pole, teach a two-bit car how to climb out of a valley and, yes, beat the high score in Atari’s Asteroids.

If a lot of people come together to develop Atari wizard programs, perhaps it will allow others to find weaknesses in a subsection of machine learning called reinforcement learning (RL), which has been the driving technology behind programs such as Alphabet’s Deep Mind Alpha Go program that beat a grandmaster in the ancient Chinese game of Go earlier this year.

An A.I. program learns how to play Tennis on Atari. 


For those who are not coders, though, there’s one big reason to pay attention to this program beyond the frustration of never winning a game of Pong or Pitfall again: It could prevent the robot apocalypse.

At least that’s what Musk believes. He’s a financial sponsor of the nonprofit organization and, in support, tweeted out the Gym beta launch news to his many followers Wednesday.

One of the organization’s main goals as a nonprofit is to eventually give away most, if not all, of its research for free to make the process of developing artificial intelligence as transparent as possible. It’s an effort to come up with a more ethical future in which A.I. helps human development, not destroys it.

Wired reported the company has attracted a lot of attention and been the target of many big-money poaching attempts from larger Silicon Valley outfits. But ultimately it’s the goals of the organization that have kept some of the best talent in the industry onboard, despite what developers have called NFL-level salaries to pull them away.

Without quarterly earnings, shareholders, or other corporate interests to kneel to, OpenAI is hoping its open-sourced Atari programs and stick-balancing toys can disrupt what promises to be a multi-billion-dollar industry in the future.

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