TechMan Texts: Computer takes 'Mario Bros.' leap

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Tom Murphy has a doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University, a job at Google and is undoubtedly the best "Super Mario Bros." player who does not use a controller.

From his experience with machine learning from work, he said, "I know that sometimes really elegantly simple techniques, along with lots of data and/or lots of computation, can produce surprisingly good results."

So he decided to turn his computer into a pretty good "Super Mario Bros." player.

Tech Talk: Microsoft official talks about 'big data'

The PG's Ced Kurtz talks with Microsoft's Jeremiah Lambo about "big data" and how it's captured and used to create a digital portrait of people like you. (Video by Melissa Tkach; 4/29/2013)

"The [Nintendo Entertainments System] only has 2kB of RAM, so I can fit about 32 million simulated Nintendos in my home computer," he said.

First he fed the machine data gathered while he played the game. Then he programmed the computer to "teach" itself by choosing the order of actions that were most successful in the game.

"Super Mario" was a good choice because success is measured simply by points accumulated.

Mr. Murphy ended up putting about a month of work in his spare time into the project.

He says maybe the techniques could be applied to testing games or other types of software. "Not many people still care about testing NES software. So I think the main value outside the amusement value is in the object lesson in machine learning and [artificial intelligence]," he said.

His program was featured at an annual CMU conference called SIGBOVIK, which features "research" on bizarre, fun or made-up topics.

To see a video of the computer playing "Super Mario," search YouTube for "sigbovik2013."

Factoid of the week: "Today, less than 2 percent of all stored information is nondigital." -- "The Rise of Big Data," Foreign Affairs, May/June 2013.

Website of the week: is the best service for quickly clipping things you read on the Web. Betaworks, which last year bought the assets of social news site Digg, announced last week that it had bought a majority stake in Instapaper. My advice, for what it's worth, is for the company to leave it alone.

Thanks again Congress: A bill requiring Internet merchants to collect state sales tax is likely to pass the Senate on Monday. Many of those voting in favor will be the same politicians who have been making noises about no tax increases.

It's not a tax increase, they say, just enforcing taxes that are already on the books. A distinction without a difference, if you ask me.

We'll see how it does in the House, where the real no-tax noisemakers live.

Whine of the week: According to tech company Akamai's just-published quarterly report, the U.S. is eighth in Internet speed worldwide, behind South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Latvia, Switzerland, Netherlands and the Czech Republic.

South Korea is on top for several reasons, including population density. Many South Koreans live in apartment buildings (70 percent in the seven largest cities), which makes running fiber-optic cable cheaper.

But another reason is that the South Korean government encourages network expansion and competition to lower cost. Unlimited broadband Internet service is available there for as little as $25 a month.

More than 50 percent of South Koreans have high-speed Internet compared to 10 percent in the United States.

Why doesn't the U.S. government realize that high-speed Internet service is a utility and regulate it as such, rather than let providers charge as much as the market will bear?


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