Built by Sony AI, a research lab launched by the company in 2020, Gran Turismo Sophy is a computer program trained to control racing cars inside the world of Gran Turismo, a video game known for its super-realistic simulations of real vehicles and tracks. In a series of events held behind closed doors last year, Sony put its program up against the best humans on the professional sim-racing circuit.
What they discovered during those racetrack battles—and the ones that followed—could help shape the future of machines that work alongside humans, or join us on the roads.
Sony soon learned that speed alone wasn’t enough to make GT Sophy a winner. The program outpaced all human drivers on an empty track, setting superhuman lap times on three different virtual courses. Yet when Sony tested GT Sophy in a race against multiple human drivers, where intelligence as well as speed is needed, GT Sophy lost. The program was at times too aggressive, racking up penalties for reckless driving, and at other times too timid, giving way when it didn’t need to.
Sony regrouped, retrained its AI, and set up a rematch in October. This time GT Sophy won with ease. What made the difference? It’s true that Sony came back with a larger neural network, giving its program more capabilities to draw from on the fly. But ultimately, the difference came down to giving GT Sophy something that Peter Wurman, head of Sony AI America, calls “etiquette”: the ability to balance its aggression and timidity, picking the most appropriate behavior for the situation at hand.
This is also what makes GT Sophy relevant beyond Gran Turismo. Etiquette between drivers on a track is a specific example of the kind of dynamic, context-aware behavior that robots will be expected to have when they interact with people, says Wurman.
An awareness of when to take risks and when to play it safe would be useful for AI that is better at interacting with people, whether it be on the manufacturing floor, in home robots, or in driverless cars.
“I don’t think we’ve learned general principles yet about how to deal with human norms that you have to respect,” says Wurman. “But it’s a start and hopefully gives us some insight into this problem in general.”