When an enemy spacecraft is bearing down on you at warp speed, intent on obliterating every molecule of your being, it’s imperative that you take action, post-haste. But not everyone is equally adept.
Thomas Zhou, however, has proven to be preternaturally brilliant at vanquishing a multitude of formidable adversaries. The 17-year-old senior at Brooklyn Technical High School has been holding steady in the top 10 on the global leaderboard throughout most of a fiercely-fought, worldwide cyber competition called Halite II.
Halite II is a frenetic space-war programming competition designed to promote the continued development of artificial intelligence, the sexiest and perhaps scariest arena in computer science today.
Players are challenged to program and battle bots that in turn control spaceships, conquer planets and defeat opponents — that is if they have the coding chops and creativity to conceive advanced, AI-infused algorithms.
Halite II is an open-source platform sponsored and overseen by Two Sigma, a Manhattan-based hedge fund and tech firm founded by John Overdeck and David Siegel that manages tens of billions of dollars of assets and utilizes AI and machine learning in its trading practices.
Zhou, meanwhile, is competing against nearly 5,000 programmers from 101 countries across the globe. Most of the competitors are professionals in the field, including professors, physicists and NASA engineers, or students from elite universities such as MIT, Harvard and the like.
Several hundred high-school students are also in the mix, but Zhou, whose Halite II sobriquet is Prisoner3D, is the highest ranking high-schooler. Zhou has a legitimate shot to knock off FakePsyho, the current leader, and grab first prize in the waning days of the three-month event. Zhou has ranked as high as No. 2.
On the downside, no cash prizes will be awarded. Top finishing competitors will have to be content with shiny new trophies and the pride of having kicked some serious cyberbutt.
From Counter-Strike to AI
An inveterate gamer since he was a child, Zhou has at times had to shoulder his mother’s complaints that he was wasting valuable study time, logging hour after hour of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, his current favorite.
“I’m doing well in school so my mom had to back off a bit when she saw it wasn’t affecting my grades,” he said. “Now she’s pretty much OK with it. Gaming actually relieves the stress of my school work.”
Brooklyn Tech, one of the jewels of the New York City public school system, adapts the college model where students choose a major in their sophomore year and follow a rigorous curriculum that has produced Nobel laureates, leaders of industry and top scientists. Zhou acquired his coding skills in the school’s software engineering program and sees himself working in the technology sector when he completes his studies.
But for now, Zhou is focused on annihilating his competition.
More than 20 programming languages is being employed on the Halite II battlefield, and Zhou is wielding Java, a stalwart, general-purpose language well suited for creating AI algorithms.
“One of the big things is anticipating what your opponents are going to do even before they know,” he said, declining to elaborate on his strategies any further.
AI is a variegated field of computer science dedicated to enable computers to perform tasks normally associated with human decision making. AI is not only the future but also very much exists here the present. Anyone who interfaces with Apple’s Siri, receives movie recommendations from Netflix, or orders products from Amazon’s Alexa is already steeped in AI.
AI proponents have asserted that it will lead to a safer, more just and egalitarian world. But others believe that AI is a Pandora’s Box, fraught with deadly dangers that will eventually be unleashed on humankind as machines acquire human attributes that may not always be the stuff of science fiction. Real fears of autonomous killer robots employed by terrorists and totalitarian dictators have already been presented to the U.N., and Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have all expressed fears of the dire consequences of weaponized self-learning machines.
Zhou, on the other hand, is not so worried.
“There’s no question that artificial intelligence is the next big thing,” he said. “I believe that as more research is done, more precautions will be put in place, so I doubt it will ever get to the point that we can’t control it. I guess you can call me an optimist.”