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How Electronic "20 Questions" Games Work

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It was about four years ago when I first saw a 20Q ball. The tiny handheld device scrolled text across its meager one-line screen, inviting me to challenge it in a game of 20 Questions. I immediately thought of an object I figured it wouldn't guess ("iPod") and began to play the game. After a series of slightly odd questions -- including "Does it bring joy to people?" -- the little ball gave its guess: "MP3 player." Wow. It was right.

So how does this 20Q device work? The short answer is "artificial intelligence." The long answer involves lots of practice. In 1988, Canadian inventor Robin Burgener programmed a neural network (a specialized form of computer program) capable of playing 20 Questions, but without a library of knowledge about common objects. He proceeded to teach it twenty questions about the object "cat," then handed the program (on floppy disk) to friends and encouraged them to play, recording their play sessions as it went. For 20Q, playing equals learning, as it develops "synaptic connections" whenever it receives answers to questions. It's able to reinforce connections by playing games over and over with different people, gradually learning which answers are correct and which aren't. (Thus it's difficult to "poison" the system by purposely giving it wrong answers.) The program can then use these connections to pose clarifying questions, eventually arriving at an answer.

By 1995, Burgener had a good body of connections in his neural network. He put a version of the 20Q program on the web and encouraged web visitors to play with it (thus training it in the process). After the online version of 20Q had played one million games (amassing 10 million synaptic connections in the process), Burgener boiled down the 20Q system into a simplified 20Q-on-a-chip version. The hardware version was incapable of learning, but contained information about the 2,000 most popular objects chosen by users of the online program. As such, it embodied a shocking "intelligence" that toy makers later put into the 20Q balls, now available at toy stores everywhere for under $15. (Specialized versions are also available, including a Harry Potter unit, and later versions of the handheld game have more information built-in.)

Today (or at least as of late 2006, the last time its online FAQ seems to have been updated), the online version of 20Q guesses correctly about 80% of the time, and if you allow it 25 questions, it claims a 98% success rate. With over 60 million games played online, the neural net continues to learn -- and this learning can be translated into future versions of the 20Q handheld games. In an interview with Kevin Kelly, Burgener said, "It is learning, but it is not increasing its success rate. What happens is that it is learning to play more kinds of people, people who don't speak English easily, or who have never played 20 questions, or who come from different cultures, and to understand more difficult kinds of things."

You can play 20Q Online for free, or pick up a handheld version at any reputable toy or game store. You can read a bit more about the game at Wikipedia or check out more on neural networks for a deeper understanding.

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The Playhouse Theatre
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The World’s First Minecraft Play Debuts in Northern Ireland
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The Playhouse Theatre

There are a lot of replicas of real-world locations in Minecraft, but there are few replicas of real-life performances. The latest show to premiere at the Playhouse Theatre in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, though, takes place both on stage and online. In what the theater is billing as the world’s first live play inside Minecraft, actors will perform both in real life and through digital avatars.

Playcraft Live is adapted from a series of young adult sci-fi novels called TimeRiders, which follows a group of teens as they work to stop future time travelers from changing history—in the case of this story, in the Neolithic Age. While the play was written by TimeRiders author Alex Scarrow, Minecraft users were involved in producing it, helping professional video game designers build out one of the virtual sets as part of a Minecraft buildathon in late September.

Three Minecraft renderings of Times Square
The Playhouse Theatre

The performance will be split between the actors live on stage and puppeteers controlling the avatars in the game. “Audiences within the theater, and online, will experience the production as a single live-stream, and neither audience needs to own Minecraft in order to view the stream,” according to a press release from the theater.

The play debuts on October 14 in Northern Ireland, and you can also watch it online via livestream.

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Zillow to Introduce 3D Tours of Houses and Apartments
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Chances are you’ve been fooled by a too-good-to-be-true housing ad, from that “spacious, light-filled” abode that was actually dark and cramped to the “two-bedroom” apartment that was just a single unit with a large living room. To spare prospective homeowners and renters these types of experiences, Zillow, the online real estate database company, is working on a free app that will soon allow customers to take 3D house tours, according to Engadget.

Real estate agents with iPhones will use the Zillow Group Home Capture App to upload 360-degree pictures of rooms to Zillow Group, sans special equipment and hosting fees. The photos will then be fused together into a panoramic walk-through, and the virtual tour will be added to a Zillow listing.

About 44 percent of homebuyers and 47 percent of renters search for homes from a distance, according to data from the 2017 Zillow Group Housing Report. 3D tours “will help buyers and renters more easily visualize themselves living in the home, no matter how far away they happened to be,” said Jeremy Wacksman, Zillow Group’s chief marketing officer, in a news release. “Photos have always been vital to the home search process and now 3D tours can give buyers and renters a realistic understanding of what it would be like to live in the home."

The Zillow Group Home Capture App isn’t quite ready for release, as it’s currently being tested by a focus group in Scottsdale, Arizona. But if you live in Phoenix, you may see it hitting the iTunes store as early as 2018, with a nationwide rollout expected by the end of next year. In the meantime, you can get an online preview of Zillow’s 3D tours here.

[h/t Engadget]

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