AI might beat people at Pokémon but it doesn't take much to dethrone it

In The Atlantic, Jacob Stern and Matteo Wong wrote about Athena2023, an AI agent that was built to play Pokémon—and very well:

For a brief moment, we could taste victory. On the first turn of our online Pokémon battle against the player Athena2023, our Aegislash dealt some serious damage to Athena2023’s Gengar. One more blow like that, and Gengar, a little purple ghost with a sinister grin, would be toast.

But Athena2023 had other ideas. Before we could make another move, Gengar blew away Aegislash, a levitating Pokémon with the appearance of a zoomorphic sword and shield, with a single attack. The point of a battle is to use your team of six Pokémon to knock out all six of your opponent’s, and we were losing fast. Athena2023 sent out a Lunala, a demonic purple-and-white bird with scythes for wings, which proceeded to eviscerate three straight Pokémon in an attack called Moongeist Beam. By turn 13, we had lost four of our Pokémon and defeated exactly zero of Athena2023’s.

Such a pathetic showing might ordinarily elicit a smirk or some pity from an opposing player. But Athena2023 is not capable of smirking or extending pity—or of anything other than playing Pokémon, for that matter—because it is an AI designed by the computer scientist Nicholas Sarantinos. Nor, it turned out, did we have much to be ashamed of: Athena2023 had at one point ranked 33rd in the world on the online battle simulator Pokémon Showdown.

This isn’t the first example of AI being used to play Pokémon, or aid someone make competitive decisions (see AI: the greatest Pokémon master and when Wolfe Glick used AI to build a VGC team with AI Team Builder). It’s a remarkable feat in any case and interesting to see how far the technology has come to be able to do this effectively. But it’s also worth noting—as the article does—that the tech isn’t foolproof (not least because it ranked 33rd and no higher). Its learnt strategies were easily thrown off when the human made certain plays:

By the time we finally managed to defeat one of Athena’s six Pokémon, just one of our own remained—Hitmonlee, a neckless kickboxing Pokémon with no apparent mouth, nose, or ears. Back came Lunala, the creepy bird-scythe hybrid that had so summarily dispatched half of our team. Lunala’s particular abilities make it entirely impervious to all of Hitmonlee’s attacks, such that Athena2023 could have finished off Hitmonlee—and the battle—with a single strike. And yet, it did not.

Instead, strangely, it used a move that does no damage to the opponent. Then it used the move again … and again … and again and again and again. On the threshold of victory, Athena2023 made the same pointless move 12 consecutive times. Had we not known better, we might have thought it was mocking us. But this was sheer idiocy, proof that although Athena2023 was more than intelligent enough to win its game, it was still not very intelligent at all. The AI was not unlike our pitiful Hitmonlee: great at kickboxing opponents to death but also neckless, mouthless, noseless, earless, brainless.

You can read Sarantinos’s paper on how he built the AI system to rank 33rd on Showdown on Arxiv.

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