Sometimes the rumors that seem too fanciful to be true are the ones that prove to be not just accurate, but also more important than anyone expected. That’s the kind of rumor that was doing the rounds on the Web about two years ago about Sony and Polyphony Digital, the company behind the iconic Gran Turismo video game series, about working on something groundbreaking that was artificial intelligence-related. It was a vague, short-lived rumor that attracted little attention and faded away – only to resurface as an actual project under the “Sony AI” umbrella in a demonstration in Polyphony Digital’s offices last summer, where human players secretly raced in GT Sport against a “digital driver” codenamed “Sophy”.
Now it is official and not a demo anymore: Gran Turismo Sophy is real and it may be the most important development in video game artificial intelligence yet. One of the most compelling in the AI field in general, too. Here’s why.
Machine learning much like human learning
According to Sony, Gran Turismo Sophy has been in development for the last five years because the company chose to go the hard way about it: it started with a totally “blank” canvas, training this artificial intelligence agent through machine learning from the ground up in order for it to “understand” what it is supposed to do in a race track and “think” as a human driver. This means that, at first, Sophy didn’t even know how to drive, let alone race. Then it had to learn how to run around a track on its own without crashing, then how to run at racing speeds and then how to drive in an optimal way for that specific track.
It’s worth noting that racing on a new track is now something that Sophy will do exactly like an actual race driver: it won’t have to learn how to drive fast from scratch, but it will have to learn the new track by driving around it many times before it can “decide” on the optimal way a car can be raced on it.
The actual competitive racing part came ever later, as Sophy learned all about racing tactics and racing etiquette. The former refers to the general strategy professional drivers follow in order to e.g. place themselves in a position to overtake or block another driver from overtaking them. The latter refers to the written and unwritten rules of sportsmanship followed by professional drivers, such as actively avoiding touching other drivers’ cars or threatening to push a competitor’s car off the track. Both require of Sophy the kind of critical thinking that has nothing to do with car control and everything to do with real-time decision-making under dynamically changing circumstances.
Superior intelligence, groundbreaking results
All this was explained by Sony in order to make a point: Sophy is not a bot. Modern video games have offered various such digital agents of predefined behavior for decades, but they have all been “scripted”: hard-coded to follow specific sets of rules. In the world of driving games, for instance, it is easy to create a virtual opponent that will stubbornly stick to the ideal racing line every time, will drive over-aggressively and make no mistakes regardless of anything else that might be happening on track.
But that is not how real drivers in real races behave and that’s why bots have never been convincing in racing games (even when their programmers forced them to make “human mistakes”). Sophy, on the other hand, will always try to win while abiding by professional racing rules, which requires… well, actual intelligence.
So how does that intelligence express itself in the virtual tracks of Gran Turismo Sport during those demonstration races against human drivers? In a word: spectacularly. Polyphony Digital organized two events where Sophy and some of the best GT Sport players in the world raced against each other, either one-on-one or on a grid with multiple human drivers.
During the first event, in July 2021, the human drivers beat Sophy — who was racing against top GT Sport drivers for the very first time — but the AI agent learned a lot from that encounter because in the second event, in October 2021, Sophy emerged victorious by quite a margin. On an 8-driver grid consisting of 4 humans and 4 versions of Sophy, the AI drivers came in first, third, fifth and seventh, with the first defeating GT Cup Champion Tomoaki Yamanaka by almost 6 seconds. For a professional race, that is huge.
So when do we get to meet Sophy?
Polyphony Digital will not be offering its groundbreaking AI virtual driver as part of Gran Turismo 7 in a few weeks: it will be added as a free update for the title in the future. Sony has not mentioned a specific timeframe for that, nor has it mentioned whether it will be appearing on the PS5 version only or if the PS4 version of the game will be getting it too. In that context, Sophy’s recent unveiling is obviously part of Sony’s marketing efforts leading to the release of GT7 on March 4th. A hi-tech statement of innovation, if you will.
It’s hard not to be excited about GT Sophy’s pure potential, though. As an AI driver that “learned” how to drive from scratch and managed to become almost unbeatable — a “driver” that will continue to learn and evolve as it will be racing against the best Gran Turismo gamers out there too — Sophy is the gaming equivalent of Deep Blue in the world of chess. It’s an important milestone that artificial intelligence would have reached at some point anyway, but an impressive one to witness nonetheless.
Some would argue, of course, that Sophy also proves — maybe in the most convincing manner yet — that machines will eventually outshine humans in all sorts of cerebral competitive activities, just as they have already done in poker, chess, Go, StarCraft and now Gran Turismo. That may very well be true. This point of view fails to take into account, though, that Sophy challenged and inspired its professional human opponents to think differently and try new things while facing her — and that it will do the same with thousands of experienced gamers, entertaining them like never before.
The same point of view fails to take into account the possibility of Sophy eventually becoming smart enough to adjust itself to the level of its human opponent, offering the exact amount of challenge each gamer needs in order to become a better player. It also fails to imagine a future where Sophy and her sister AI personalities could be convincing, fun teammates in all sorts of multiplayer games, for any kind of player.
If anything — product marketing efforts aside — what anyone should take away from the unveiling of Sophy is that artificial intelligence shouldn’t be constantly labeled as a threat. There is no reason why society and advanced technology such as AI cannot co-exist. In that sense, Sony’s “Race Together” codename for the Gran Turismo Sophy demonstration races is perfect. Here’s hope that the company sticks to that racing line.
Update 21/02/2023: GT Sophy is finally making its debut in Gran Turismo 7 via the title’s latest update. More about it here.