Reviews

Film Review: Artificial Gamer (Chad Herschberger, 2021)

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by Nash Bussieres

In Artificial Gamer, Dota is described as Basketball meets Chess – and there’s merit in that. But it’s more like if in your basketball/chess game, you and everyone on the court also got a gun. Dota is a mechanically intensive, heavily strategic team game of mutually assured destruction. Every character in play has abilities and powers that can have devastating consequences and completely shift the tide of battle if used perfectly. So the question posed by Artificial Gamer is an inevitable one: would a computer be able to play Dota more perfectly than a human?

The answer – if you were to ask your average Dota player – would be “obviously no.” Dota is a 5-on-5 team game where players take turns drafting characters, all with unique abilities and attributes, to form a cohesive squad. Your goal is to take down your enemy’s base called “the ancient” (Dota stands for Defense of the Ancients) by coordinating attacks on your opponents’ team and marching forward. You collect gold for killing your opponents and small computer-controlled swarms of enemies that are spawned in waves. Gold allows you to power up your character through buying items with the goal of becoming so powerful that your opponent can’t defend any longer as you waltz into their base and claim victory. It’s very much a war of attrition – even the fastest games can take over 20 minutes to complete.

So that’s the real rub here, a game this complex with this many variables in a real-time setting doesn’t immediately seem like it’s ripe for the taking from our eventual robot overlords. In fact, AI that plays Dota has existed since its inception as an in-game tutorial. And the AI teams, called “bots”, are incredibly bad; even on the hardest setting new players can easily overcome computer controlled opponents.

This concept of not only competent AI, but powerful AI in Dota being a laughable idea in the eyes of the wider community serves as the main narrative of Artificial Gamer. It follows the journey of OpenAI, a company who sets out to make a bot strong enough to beat any Dota team – even the world champs. We first see it take on Dendi – the best player in the world at the time – one-on-one and demolish him. But one-on-one Dota isn’t really the draw; it’s a team game and the complex decisions, coordination and human intuition needed to perform at a top level is completely incongruent with what is needed in a single player game. So can OpenAI do it?

The majority of the film focuses on the trials and tribulations of OpenAI as they try to get their bot ready to fight in time for The International 2018: the Dota world championships. There they will play exhibitions versus real human teams and attempt to prove that their bot can hang with the best. It’s a visually engaging story with lots of fascinating illustrations and fun graphics and is edited in a way that (mostly) nails really difficult segues and topic shifts without feeling too jarring or compartmentalized. The lack of a main narrator and an occasional inability to truly describe the concepts being talked about in laymen’s terms can make it a bit dry if you don’t already have at least a casual understanding of Dota, machine learning or both. The film is built up to The International as if it were to be the climax of the story, but this grand battle happens an hour in and turns out to only be a stepping stone in a much longer journey, which in turn hurts the pacing of the last third of the film.

Compelling and endearing interviews from the team at OpenAI do a lot to emphasize how much the current field of artificial intelligence and machine learning is a wild west; no one knows if anything is actually going to work or how it will work or when it will work. Spending this amount of time and energy on a project that has an unknown chance of success is unforgiving work and you can easily see the toll it takes on the team despite their determination.

Ultimately, Artificial Gamer is a deeply human story about a team of passionate and desperate pioneers trying to accomplish something they’ve been told is impossible. If you’re a fan of Dota or of machine learning in general you’ll get a lot out of it, but your eyes might glaze over a bit from time to time if you’re completely uninitiated.

Hot Docs Review – Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street (Marilyn Agrelo, 2021)

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

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Sesame Street is one of those institutions that we take for granted. It is on every day, it has a stable of characters most of us grew up with and it’s a great way to grab a child’s attention during the day.

But how did Sesame Street become an institution? And more importantly, how did it actually change television? These are some questions that Marilyn Agrelo answers with her heartwarming documentary Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street.

Make no mistake, this film is exactly what you think it is – a well produced documentary featuring all things good (and some bad – it is a documentary after all) behind the tale of Sesame Street. Featuring amazing archival footage and access to all the key individuals, this film perfectly encapsulates Sesame Street and celebrates how it came to be – and boy, what a story it is.

I, like most viewers, know Sesame Street for its lovable characters and quirky educational methods, but I was completely caught by surprise in discovering all the subtle agendas that the Sesame Street team (including writers and educators) had with this program. As the film reveals, the team behind the show wanted to not only educate in the academic sense but also wanted to address race, class, diversity and other difficult issues for children. In the world of documentary, you often see corporations painted in a negative light, but this film takes the opposite approach. Maybe that was deliberate on HBO’s behalf, but the child in me wants to believe that there are good people in the world, and this film really does do that.

In 2021, you can call that a relative triumph.

Hot Docs Review: Bangla Surf Girls (Elizabeth D. Costa, 2021)

Posted on by Gary in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

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I suppose professional sports is as bizarre and opaque a concept to me as professional science is to 99% of the population. Regardless of novelty, though, if an activity is the only way out the drudgery of a Bangladeshi slum, even for just a few hours a day, it naturally becomes the center of one’s world.

Cox Bazar is a coastal resort of sorts in Bangladesh’s eastern corner on the border with Myanmar. Its beaches are rife with the contrast between haves and have-nots on a daily basis. Most children have little chance of upward social mobility; girls, especially, have few choices between menial labor, tourists trades, or being exchanged as brides. Requiring no more than a piece of foam, some sticky bumps, and the bracing ocean, it isn’t surprising that professional surfing can be a salvation.

Bangla Surf Girls follows 3 girls who not only found but excel at surfing, enough to join a club and compete nationally and internationally. With training from Bangladeshi expat Rashed and some graft, these girls learn to navigate their family/community expectations with literal abandon. While their prize money and recognition can mean subsistence, the club also serves as point for food handouts – a Salvation Army on surfboards, if you will.

Editing of such documentaries is secondary to the experiences they portray – but Bangla Surf Girls is an accomplished and well-produced film in both regards. A part of enjoying these intimate portraits requires us to not just sympathize with circumstances, but suspend the norms of western liberal democracies that seem to us universally optimal. Social dynamics are simply an informally agreed set of values, and not inherently backward or progressive as judged by GDP. For example, an individual father whose sole concern is prestige might not deserve the “unenlightened” label when we realize that losing-face will pragmatically reduce his prospects among peers and community, in lack of trade and access to land/help, etc. Why should he adopt our particular moral compass in a masochistic way, to face daily hardship, just to win an occasional remote approval? We often recite that most societies “become like us” as they “modernize”, like some underlying refrain that must occur in every pop song ever written. But the saying “All roads lead to Rome” has been proven quite wrong over the past two millennia, and in all honesty, I doubt the recent partisanship is the pie-in-the-sky that attracts any developing country.

Sitting out in the sea for 3 hours to avoid a suffocating future is the polar opposite of my memories of the same in San Diego. I have to confess that I will probably never be as good as any of these girls at surfing; maybe that lack of commitment was precisely why. Besides sealions and sharks, I never knew what I was avoiding while bobbing out at Black’s.

Hot Docs Review: The Gig is Up (Shannon Walsh, 2021)

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

The Gig is Up

I still remember when I (and everyone else) first started using Uber. You would hop in, and because it was so new to everyone, you would always be like “So how long have you been doing this for? How is it? Is this what you do?” We asked those questions because we were legitimately interested. Uber and other rideshares were a disruptive industry that took advantage of a growing dissatisfaction with cab drivers. It was also one of the first industries where it seemed like people could go into business for themselves, determine their own hours and make money based on how hard they worked. It was our first insight into new tech gig economy.

The questions we didn’t bother asking during these initial rides were “Do you trust the company you work for?”, “What happens when the disruptive industry becomes the actual industry and the company takes advantage of this by driving down your profits” and also “What is it like to be managed by AI?”

These questions are some of the questions that Shannon Walsh looks at in this sobering documentary, which follows the journey of several gig economy workers ranging from Uber drivers to food delivery bikers to manual AI processors. The story is the same – things look awesome at first, but slowly unravel as big business starts doing their thing. I’m not sure this is a cautionary tale because if you have followed protests in the past, you know we’ve already reached a boiling point, but maybe next time you reach for your phone, it might give you a little more pause.

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