Opentaflvecken: AI progress

If you’re a regular reader over at Many Words Main, you’ll undoubtedly have thought that I’m some kind of bum, missing another update so soon. Not so! I’ve been very busy on other projects; very busy indeed. In a series of articles this week, I’ll be going through improvements I’ve made to OpenTafl’s AI. I’ll be releasing a stable version out of v0.4.3.x soon, which will feature the structural improvements I’ve made so far; next up will be puzzles in v0.4.4.x, then AI state evaluation improvements in v0.4.5.x.

So, what have I been up to? Well, let me open up my source control log, and I’ll tell you. Note I’m not reporting my progress in chronological order here: I present to you a natural-seeming order of features which bears little resemblance to reality, but which does make for a neater story.

Before embarking on a project as fuzzy as AI improvements, I needed tools to tell me whether my changes were making a positive effect. I started with a simple one: a command which dumps the AI’s evaluation of a particular state. This lets me verify that the evaluation is correct, and it turns out (to nobody’s great surprise) that it is not. When playing rules with weak kings, the AI places far too much weight on having a piece next to the king. When playing rules with kings which aren’t strong (tablut, for instance), the AI still mistakenly assumes that placing one piece next to the king is the same as putting the king in check. An improvement to make for phase 2!

The next thing on the docket was a test. As I wrote about what feels like a lifetime ago, OpenTafl is a traditional game-playing artificial intelligence. It uses a tree search algorithm called minimax with alpha-beta pruning, which is an extension of the pure minimax algorithm. The latter simply plays out every possible game to a certain depth, then evaluates the board position at the end of each possibility, then picks the best one to play toward, bearing in mind that the other player will make moves which are not optimal from its perspective1. Alpha-beta pruning extends minimax by taking advantage of the way we search the tree: we go depth first, exploring leaf nodes from ‘left’ to ‘right’2. As we move to the right, we discover nodes that impose bounds on the solution. Nodes which fall outside those bounds need not be considered. (The other article has an example.)

Anyway, the upshot of the preceding paragraph is that, for any given search, minimax and minimax with alpha-beta pruning should return the same move3. Previously, I had no way of verifying that this was so. Fortunately, it turned out that it was, and out of the whole endeavor I gained an excellent AI consistency test. It runs several searches, starting with all of OpenTafl’s AI features turned off to do a pure minimax search, then layering on more and more of OpenTafl’s search optimizations, to verify that none of the search optimizations break the minimax equivalence4.

Extension searches
Strong chess engines do something called extensions: after searching the main tree to a certain depth, they find interesting positions among the leaf nodes—captures, checks, and others—and search those nodes more deeply, until they become quiet5. OpenTafl does something similar, albeit on a larger scale. After it runs out of time for the main search, it launches into a two-stage extension search.

First, it attempts to deepen its view of the tree overall, a process I’ve been calling ‘continuation search’. Rather than clear the tree and start again, as OpenTafl does on its other deepening steps, continuation search starts with the tree already discovered and re-searches it, exploring to the next depth and re-expanding nodes. This process is much slower, in terms of new nodes explored, than a new deepening step, but as you’ll recall, deepening goes from left to right. A new deepening step discards useful information about the rightmost moves, in the hopes of discovering better information. Continuation search assumes that we don’t have the time to do that well, and that a broad, but not exhaustive, search to the next depth is more correct than half of a game tree6.

Continuation search takes time, too, though. It has to muddle its way down through the preexisting tree, potentially expanding lines of play previously discarded, before it gets to any truly new information. When there isn’t enough time for continuation search, the AI does something I’ve been calling horizon search, which resembles the traditional extension searches found in chess engines. The AI repeatedly makes deeper searches, using the end of the best nodes as the root. Frequently, it discovers that the variation it thought was best turns out not to be: I’d put it at about half the time that horizon search runs, discovering some unrealized weakness in the position that the evaluation function did not correctly account for.

But then again, it isn’t the evaluation function’s job to predict the future. The history of traditional game-playing AI is one of a quest for greater depth; a simple evaluation function and a deep search usually gives better results than a heavyweight evaluation function and a shallow search. With this philosophical point I think I will leave you for now. I have at least one more of these posts running later in the week, so I’ll see you then.

1. Hence minimax: one player is traditionally known as max, whose job it is to maximize the value of the position evaluation function, and the other is known as min, whose job is the opposite. The best move for max is the move which allows min the least good response.
2. Or whatever other natural ordering you prefer.
3. Or a move with the same score.
4. Since minimax is known to produce the optimal move from a given situation, any search which is not the same as minimax is no longer optimal. It turned out that, depending on the search optimizations, moves might be considered in a different order, and in case of identical scores, the first one encountered would be selected. The test runs from the start, so there are eight symmetrical ways to make the same move, and some searches came up with mirrored or rotated moves. Out of the bargain, I got methods to detect rotations and mirrors of a given move, which will serve me well for the opening book and the corner books I hope to do down the road.
5. Another point where chess AI developers have an edge on tafl fans: there’s more research on what makes for a quiet chess position (one where the evaluation is not likely to dramatically shift) than there is for tafl positions.
6. This was the source of a particularly pernicious bug, because it evaded most of my tests: most of the tests had search times just long enough to get near the end of the tree for a given depth, and the best move occurred at the start of the search in the rest. Continuation search also caused another bug, in response to which I wrote the AI consistency test. (I told you I wasn’t going in chronological order here.) That one was all my fault: I have a method to revalue the parents of a node, which is important for the next kind of search I’ll be describing. I was calling it after exploring the children of any node, propagating alpha and beta values up the tree too fast and causing incorrect, early cutoffs (which meant that the AI failed to explore some good countermoves, and had some baffling weaknesses which are now corrected).

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