Ann Arbor software developer chooses new hires with AI Connect Four tournament

Custom software developer Atomic Object's Ann Arbor office hired three new employees last month, but not before they'd proved themselves and their programming skills in a test of skill and character known as Connect Four.

Modeled after a similar event held in Atomic Object’s Grand Rapids headquarters last fall, 17 aspiring developers were invited to compete in the 2017 Atomic Games in the company's downtown office in January.

Competitors spent a weekend building an artificial intelligence (AI) that could simulate a player in a virtual version of the popular kids' game Connect Four. The following Monday, participants ran the AIs against one another in a single-elimination tournament.

"It's kind of like March Madness for geeks," says Atomic Object managing partner Jonah Bailey.

The three full-time hires that resulted from the competition will enter the company's Atomic Accelerator program, which provides a professional development curriculum for recent graduates during their first two years with Atomic Object.

As demand for Atomic Object's services has grown, Bailey says the company realized hires from within the industry aren't always the best fit for its complex work, which often requires learning new computing languages and frameworks on a project-to-project basis.

"What we decided was, instead of going out and looking for these lateral hires — people with 10-plus years' experience — what if we just went out and made those people?" Bailey says.

Throughout the games, Bailey says competitors were evaluated on their technical competence as well as their interpersonal skills, and winning the game didn't necessarily equal a job offer.

The game was represented graphically on a screen during the competition and players were generally supportive of each other as the chips fell. Bailey says audible and emotional responses were common, "and if it seemed like a really intelligent play [was made], everyone was like, 'Ohhh.'"

The winning AI was able to "get smarter" as it played by storing a repository of situations it had already encountered, but Bailey says a human player should still be able to fend it off.

"I don't think any of these AIs would actually be able to beat a human being," Bailey says. "They might draw, but I don't think they would win."
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
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