The Turing Tests of PUBG Mobile

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Published on July 11, 2018

In 1950, Alan Turing first proposed the concept that would eventually become known as “The Turing Test.” He proposed that instead of trying to answer the question of whether machines can think, we should instead ask if machines can win an “imitation game.” The most common interpretation has a human “interrogator” communicating with another human and a computer. The challenge for the AI is to make the human interrogator think they’re speaking to two humans. Since 1950, countless artificial intelligence have been tested in fashions similar to what Turing originally envisioned. The Turing Test has become a kind of pop culture metric for the public to understand the state of AI development.

On March 19, 2018, Chinese publisher Tencent released a mobile port of PlayerUnknown’s Battleground or PUBG. Coming about a month before they would release the iOS port of Fortnite, PUBG Mobile’s release was the first time many Western players got a mobile experience from one of the world’s fastest-growing publishers.

A few weeks after PUBG Mobile launched in March, video game outlets began reporting that matches were almost filled with AI characters, or bots, for the first few hours of the game. Dozens of stories weren’t reported based on any confirmation from the developer or text within the game; they solely relied on the experiences of players that interacted with the bots. Preceding these articles, forums like the PUBG subreddit were flooded with players bragging about how well they were performing early on in the mobile port. After these articles were released, the subreddit created a “wall of shame” with links to the bragging posts.

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Although the idea behind this wall of shame was that these proud posters were rubes for thinking they were racking up so many kills against other humans, how could they have known? Computer-controlled bots are not entirely uncommon in online shooters — other first-person shooters like Counterstrike and Red Orchestra have long used bots to populate otherwise sparse servers — but they are almost universally accompanied by an indication in their username or somewhere else that they are not human. Three months since the initial stories and developer Tencent has still not responded to any media inquiries on the matter.

After the initial realization within the community, a question started guiding the content created by PUBG Mobile players: how to spot bots. These bots are dressed like any other player and have auto-generated handles that effectively mimic a real player. There aren’t intuitive ways to pick them out from other characters. But these articles, forum posts, and videos presented theories about how you might be able to spot the seams on the bots. There were theories like “bots usually also only carry a single weapon, so if you don’t notice them switching at any point in time, there’s a high likelihood that you’re fighting one,” by Zachary Riley in the piece “How To Spot And Remove PUBG Mobile Bots.”

From the top of the search results for “PUBG Mobile Bots” on Youtube
From the top of the search results for “PUBG Mobile Bots” on Youtube

People were engaging in a communal Turing Test. More accurately, players were conducting endless Turing Tests for every new enemy they encountered, with the help of this AI spotting culture and its growing scholarship. “Is this one of the humans or is it one of the A.I.’s? Is this player’s awkward footwork and sloppy aim from a real person’s ineptitude or the forgiving programming of a developer.”

Near the end of April, more clinical approaches were taken to dig deeper into the actual numbers of bots populating the matches. Endeavors by posters like /u/shitpostahoy on the PUBG Mobile subreddit use the tactic of meticulously trying to friend each of the 99 usernames that appear on the leaderboards for a given match. According to /u/shitpostahoy’s findings, he was playing with 37 real players and 63 bots at around level 27. I would guess that this takes about 8–10 hours of play. He notes that the community consensus is that the ratio of humans to bots rises as you ascend in level.

Throughout all of the work and inside jokes and culture developed within the PUBG Mobile community surrounding the shared acknowledgment of the bots, there was a surprising lack of scrutinization as to why Tencent would include AI enemies. There seemed to be a generally accepted logic to their choice: PUBG is a complicated game. For the new players that will be attracted to a mobile port, easier matches early on might help them ease into the systems of the game without feeling immediately rebuffed by difficulty.

Screenshot from redditor /u/bepis1998’s post “Hahahaha noooo I lost the dinner to a bot”
Screenshot from redditor /u/bepis1998’s post “Hahahaha noooo I lost the dinner to a bot”

Right around the time of PUBG Mobile’s release in March, Journalist David Ferrier reported on the New Zealand medical AI “Zach” for The Spinoff. In his two-part saga, Ferrier uncovered this celebrated AI to in fact be its two human “inventors” just sitting in a room and emailing sloppy notes back to doctors who thought they were interacting with Zach. While the bizarre story of Zach unraveled in the opposite trajectory to the saga of the PUBG Mobile bots, the fervor that had built around Zach in the medical community shares core qualities with the overexcited Redditors sharing their PUBG Mobile victories. Both groups’ initial excitement came from an understanding of the authorship of their experiences that proved to be wrong. Both groups’ excitement shows underlying ideologies concerning the worth they hold for organic intelligence as opposed to artificial intelligence.

Bots aren’t the only issues facing PUBG Mobile right now. Steps are still being taken to separate players that connect mouse and keyboards, so they don’t have a wild advantage over players using mobile controls. And a lot of the fanbase has been vocal about wanting to see an offline mode created using the bots. While they dislike the bots being a certainty in every online match, users aren’t blanketly decrying bots within the product.

Personally, I really love this mobile port. I appreciate the little user-friendly features exclusive to it like directional indicators on the map to help you sus out where the gunfire came from. I’m incredibly impressed by the graphical fidelity and its relatively consistent netcode.

And I maybe love the bots. Like other players though, I’m disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be an end to them in sight. I find myself doing the calculus after each gunfight; recalling the details about the interaction that might tip off what kind of sentience was on the other side of my bullets. What if I never found out that there were bots though? What if I lived in the blissful ignorance of those Redditors posting in the first few weeks of PUBG Mobile’s release?

Over the course of Turing Tests, scientists have debated about whether Alan Turing intended for the human interrogator to enter the test knowing that one of the communicators was a computer. If the human enters the activity knowing that it will interact with an AI, the AI will have an unnecessary disadvantage. More and more PUBG Mobile players are entering the game with the knowledge that they’ll interact with AI’s. But their goal isn’t just to identify them and kill them. They want to erase them from existence. And who knows if that will ever again be a possibility.

PUBG Mobile makes me feel way better about myself than the original on PC. Even if it is just because the bots are idiots.
PUBG Mobile makes me feel way better about myself than the original on PC. Even if it is just because the bots are idiots.
Categories: Features

D.W. Wallach

D.W. writes about video games and how to cherish our moments with technology. D.W. is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. Twitter: @gaiaonline420