Elon Musk opens virtual gym to train your robots

OpenAI Gym helps programmers improve their artificial intelligence systems

machine learning

High-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has launched an open-source training "gym" for artificial-intelligence programmers.

It's an interesting move for a man who in 2014 said artificial intelligence, or A.I., will pose a threat to the human race.

"I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence," Musk said about a year and a half ago during an MIT symposium. "If I were to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it's probably that... with artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. In all those stories with the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, and he's sure he can control the demon. It doesn't work out."

Today, Musk is moving to help programmers use A.I. and machine learning to build smart robots and smart devices.

"We're releasing the public beta of OpenAI Gym, a toolkit for developing and comparing reinforcement learning (RL) algorithms," wrote Greg Brockman, OpenAI's CTO, and John Schulman, a scientist working with OpenAI, in a blog post . "We originally built OpenAI Gym as a tool to accelerate our own RL research. We hope it will be just as useful for the broader community."

The OpenAI Gym is meant as a tool for programmers to use to teach their intelligent systems better ways to learn and develop more complex reasoning. In short, it's meant to make smart systems smarter.

Musk is a co-chair of OpenAI, a $1 billion organization that was unveiled last December as an effort focused on advancing artificial intelligence that will benefit humanity.

While Musk has warned of what he sees as the perils of A.I., it's also a technology that he needs for his businesses.

Tesla Motors, a U.S. electric car company of which Musk is CEO, uses machine-learning algorithms to enable its autopilot feature to learn and improve with use.

Musk is also the CEO and CTO of SpaceX, a commercial space transportation company and aerospace manufacturer. Machine learning and A.I. could both easily play roles in its operations.

"The irony is that Musk needs much-improved A.I. to make his businesses automated," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "He doesn't hate A.I. He just thinks it should be controlled before it gets too powerful and the machines turn on humans. This announcement very well could be a way for him to keep an eye on everything happening in the space."

The OpenAI Gym is made up of a suite of environments, including simulated robots and Atari games, as well as a site for comparing and reproducing results.

It's focused on reinforcement learning, a field of machine learning that involves decision-making and motor control.

According to OpenAI, reinforcement learning is an important aspect of building intelligent systems because it encompasses any problem that involves making a sequence of decisions. For instance, it could focus on controlling a robot's motors so it's able to run and jump, or enabling a system to make business decisions regarding pricing and inventory management.

Two major challenges for developers working with reinforcement learning are the lack of standard environments and the need for better benchmarks.

Musk's group is hoping that the OpenAI Gym addresses both of those issues.

"I think this could be quite helpful for someone developing smart robots and autonomous devices," Moorhead said. "What Musk is enabling is a way for developers to compare their results. With this, developers can gauge how far they have come or how far they have to go. Nothing beats a competitive environment to motivate developers. It's like a monster truck rally for A.I. programmers."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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