Two opponets face off in an ancient strategy game. However, only one of them is a person, and he’s not winning. The historic victory of AlphaGo has made quite the round in the news. Why is it so important?

Now for the short review: Go is a Chinese board game. One of its distinguishing features (at least for computer scientists) is the mind-boggling number of possible moves and countermoves,  which make direct calculations—like the ones used in chess software—unfeasible.

Enter AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence created by a division of Google called DeepMind to learn the game. It didn’t just learn: in 5-game series, it swept the European champion Fan Hui 5-0, then punished Lee Sedol, one of the best players in the world, by 4-1. It was the first time an artificial intelligence ever even beat an expert human player.

A Go-playing computer, however capable is not of much use in itself. But board games have a lot in common with real-life problems: they pose hard questions, require to take complex decisions, and evaluate pros and cons of several options.

At the same time, they are a controlled and well-defined environment, there is a limited number of possible moves, strategies and situations, and it’s possible to assign objective values to each option or outcome. In other words, the game is a testbed for real-life decisions.

For computers it’s even more: while for us learning comes naturally, they have to learn how to do that. AlphaGo, for example, was not programmed specifically to play Go, but just to observe games and soak up the best strategies. If we put it in front of a different problem or a different game, it could use the same system to quickly learn and solve that.

Computers trained on poker or Jeopardy!, for example, now help doctors with their diagnoses. Google says they hope, in the future, “to help us address some of society’s toughest and most pressing problems, from climate modelling to complex disease analysis.”

But something tells me that, before they save the world, they will use AlphaGo for really important things: find us more cat videos.

 

Cover photo: from above, CC-BY-NC tommpouce, via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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