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AI Dungeon’s creator Latitude launches new Voyage game platform

Latitude, the startup behind text game AI Dungeon, is expanding into a new artificial intelligence-powered game platform called Voyage. The company announced the closed beta on Friday, opening a waitlist for current AI Dungeon users. It’s the next step for a company that began with a university hackathon project, but that ultimately hopes to help other people create their own games using trained AI models.

AI Dungeon, which launched as AI Dungeon 2 in 2019, is powered by OpenAI’s GPT-2 and GPT-3 text generation algorithms. To start, you generate some introductory text or write your own adventure setup. Then you can enter any command you want and a Dungeons & Dragons-style virtual game master will improvise some text describing the outcome. It’s very weird and a lot of fun, but it’s light on traditional game mechanics — more like an interactive fiction engine.

Voyage features more structured games. There’s a Reigns-inspired experiment called Medieval Problems, where you’re the ruler of a kingdom and enter freeform text commands for your advisors, then see the outcome reflected in success ratings. It’s still a lot like AI Dungeon, but with a clearer framing for what you’re supposed to do and a system for evaluating success — although after playing with the game, that system seems pretty forgiving and more than a bit random.

An image from the party game Pixel This

An image from the party game Pixel This

Pixel This, meanwhile, is a party game where one person enters a phrase, the AI generates a pixelated picture of it, and that image slowly increases in resolution until another player guesses it. It’s a bit like the art app Dream paired with a Pictionary-style mechanic.

Latitude CEO Nick Walton describes Voyage as a natural evolution for Latitude. For the company, “AI games are kind of restarting at the beginning” — with text adventures reminiscent of Zork or Colossal Cave Adventure. “Now we’re moving into 2D images where you’ve got some level of visuals in.” AI Dungeon, which is included in Voyage, recently added AI-produced pictures created with the Pixray image generator.

The eventual goal is to add game creation tools, not just games, to Voyage. “Our long-term vision is enabling creators to make things that are dynamic and alive in a way that existing experiences aren’t, and also be able to create things that would have taken studios of a hundred people in the past,” says Walton. There’s no precise roadmap, but Latitude plans to spend the first half of next year working on the system.

Creative tools could help Voyage find a long-term business plan. AI Dungeon is currently free for a set of features powered by GPT-2 and subscription-based for access to the higher-quality GPT-3 algorithm. Following the Voyage beta, Latitude plans to introduce a subscription for it as well.

But Voyage’s new games don’t yet have the versatility or replayability of AI Dungeon — they’re still clearly the products of a company trying to crack games based on machine learning. “This approach is one of the things that I think is going to be really beneficial in terms of being able to iterate and find out what experiences people enjoy,” Walton says. “With traditional games, you can kind of take existing models and create a game that you’re pretty sure people will enjoy. But this space is so different, and it’s hard to necessarily know.” The question is how much people will want to pay to be part of that process.

As Latitude’s mission expands, it will likely need to exercise caution with OpenAI’s application programming interface (API). The organization approves GPT-3 projects on an individual basis, and projects must adhere to content guidelines intended to prevent misuse. Latitude has struggled with these restrictions in the past, since AI Dungeon gives users a lot of freedom to shape their own stories — resulting in some users creating disturbing sexual scenarios that alarmed OpenAI. (It’s also dealt with security issues around user commands.) The startup spent months working on filter systems that accidentally blocked more innocuous fictional content before striking a deal where some user commands would be sent to a non-OpenAI algorithm.

Pixel This and Medieval Problems are more closed systems with fewer obvious moderation risks, but introducing creative tools risks chipping away at OpenAI’s control of GPT-3, which may pose its own set of issues. Walton says that over time, Latitude hopes to shift more of its games onto other algorithms. “We will have some more structure and systems so that it’s not just directly consuming the [OpenAI] API in the same way. And at the same time, I think most of our models will probably be ones that we host ourselves,” he says. That includes models based on emerging open source projects — which have had trouble competing with OpenAI’s work but have advanced since their early days. “I don’t think that gap will be around that long,” says Walton.

Lots of games use procedural generation that remixes developer-created building blocks to create huge quantities of content, and most video game “AI” is a comparatively simple set of instructions. A company like Latitude, by contrast, uses algorithms that are trained to produce text or images fitting a pattern from a data set. (Think of them as super-advanced autocomplete systems.) Right now that can make the resulting experiences highly unpredictable, and their absurdity is often part of their charm — outside gaming, other companies like NovelAI have also harnessed text generation for creative work.

But Latitude is still figuring out how to make systems where players can expect fair and consistent outcomes. Text generation algorithms don’t have any built-in sense of whether an action succeeds or fails, for instance, and systems for making those judgments may not agree with normal human intuition. Image generation algorithms are great for producing weird art, but in a game like Pixel This, players can’t necessarily predict how recognizable a given picture will be.

For now, Latitude’s solution is to lean into the chaos. “If you try and make something super serious with AI where people are going to expect to have a high level of coherence, it’s going to have a hard time, at least until the technology gets better,” Walton says. “But if you kind of embrace that aspect of it and kind of let it be crazier and wacky, then I think you make a fun experience and people get delighted by those surprises.”

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AI

Cruise acquires driverless vehicle startup Voyage to tackle dense urban environments

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GM-backed Cruise today announced it is acquiring Voyage, following Bloomberg’s early March report of a potential deal. Terms of the buyout weren’t disclosed, but Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron said “key members” of the Voyage team will join Cruise when the purchase is finalized in the coming months. Cameron will take on a new role as vice president of product.

“Voyage’s experience and development of Commander (our self-driving AI), Shield (our collision mitigation system), and Telessist (our novel remote assistance solution) will only supercharge Cruise’s goal of superhuman driving performance,” Cameron wrote in a blog post. “I am thrilled that key members of our Voyage team — particularly those who worked on our third-generation robotaxi — will be able to use their extensive experience in vehicle development to put their stamp on the Cruise Origin, delivering a better and safer future for our roadways.”

Cameron, former VP of product and engineering at online education giant Udacity, founded Voyage in 2017 alongside MacCallister Higgins, an ex-Udacity senior software engineer. The San Francisco, California-based startup targets communities that may have a greater and more imminent need for a network of self-driving cars, particularly retirement villages.

Voyage’s vehicles are adapted Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans that feature sensors and systems from third-party players and the company’s own AI technology. With a team of 60 employees, Voyage shipped three generations of robo-taxis — the G1, G2, and G3 — and signed partnerships with leading companies like FCA, First Transit, Enterprise, and Intact Insurance. Voyage counts a number of retirement communities among its customers, including The Villages in San Jose and The Villages in Florida.

The effects of the pandemic, including testing delays, have resulted in consolidation, tabled or canceled launches, and shakeups across the autonomous transportation industry. Ford pushed the unveiling of its self-driving service from 2021 to 2022; Waymo CEO John Krafcik told the New York Times the pandemic delayed work by at least two months; and Amazon acquired driverless car startup Zoox for $1.3 billion. According to Boston Consulting Group managing director Brian Collie, broad commercialization of AVs won’t happen before 2025 or 2026 — at least three years later than originally anticipated.

According to Gartner analyst Mike Ramsey, consolidation in the self-driving market is inevitable and necessary. “There still are dozens of players trying to tackle this market from both a technology and an operations standpoint,” he told VentureBeat via email. “Every smaller company gets to a point where they have to decide whether they are able to scale up and invest the resources to grow, change their model altogether to push into a different part of the market, or look to merge with another company.”

PitchBook’s Asad Hussain noted that smaller autonomous vehicle startups like Voyage face steep capital requirements to scale, while big tech-backed self-driving leaders like Cruise have achieved a formidable market position. “Voyage has targeted an attractive market, as the population of retirees is expected to grow significantly over the next few years. Additionally, we believe Voyage’s technology — which is focused on automated vehicles within retirement communities — is an attractive asset for Cruise, which largely focuses on automation in dense urban environments,” Hussain said. “Exposure to more structured environments such as retirement communities should enable Cruise to commercialize faster, as these use cases have much fewer variables and safety hazards compared to dense urban environments.”

Cruise is considered a pack leader in a global market that’s anticipated to hit revenue of $173.15 billion by 2023.

Recently, Cruise revealed that it has roughly 1,800 employees working on its self-driving cars, up from 1,000 as of March 2019. The also company claimed a 2.5 times increase in the utilization of its all-electric test vehicles between summer 2019 and early February, an improvement that’s expected to drive down costs.

Cruise is piloting its cars in Scottsdale, Arizona and the Detroit, Michigan metropolitan area. But the bulk of its deployment is concentrated in San Francisco, where it has a permit to test vehicles without safety drivers behind the wheel. Cruise has scaled up rapidly, growing its starting fleet of 30 driverless vehicles to about 130 by June 2017. The company hasn’t disclosed the exact total publicly, but it has 180 self-driving cars registered with California’s DMV, and documents obtained by IEEE Spectrum suggest Cruise plans to deploy as many as 300 test cars around the country.

Building on the progress it has made so far, in 2020 Cruise announced a partnership with DoorDash to pilot food and grocery delivery for select customers in San Francisco. And it’s making progress toward a fourth-generation car called Origin that features automatic doors, rear-seat airbags, and other redundant systems — but no steering wheel.

In May 2018, Cruise announced that SoftBank’s Vision Fund would invest $2.25 billion in the company, along with another $1.1 billion from GM itself. In October 2018, Honda pledged $750 million, to be followed by another $2 billion in the next 12 years. And in January, Cruise raised $2 billion in an equity round that pushed its valuation up to $30 billion and brought Microsoft on as an investor and partner.

But Cruise is burning through cash quickly. GM posted a $1 billion loss on Cruise in 2019, up from a $728 million loss in 2018.

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