Program takes a Go at game, beats expert

CLEAN SWEEP: The AlphaGo program defeated Go champion Fan Hui last October in a five-game match.


    Jan 29, 2016

    Program takes a Go at game, beats expert


    IS JUDGMENT Day, the day when machines begin to overthrow humankind in the Terminator movies, drawing closer?

    In what they called a milestone achievement for artificial intelligence (AI), scientists said on Wednesday they have created a computer program that beat a professional human player at the complex board game called Go, also known as weiqi, which originated in China.

    The feat recalled IBM supercomputer Deep Blue's 1997 match victory over chess world champion Garry Kasparov.

    But Go, a strategy board game most popular in places like China, South Korea and Japan, is vastly more complicated than chess.

    "Go is considered to be the pinnacle of game AI research," said AI researcher Demis Hassabis of Google DeepMind, the British company that developed the AlphaGo program.

    "It's been the grand challenge, or holy grail if you like, of AI since Deep Blue beat Kasparov at chess."

    DeepMind was acquired in 2014 by tech giant Google.

    AlphaGo swept a five-game match against three-time European Go champion and Chinese professional Fan Hui last October. Until now, the best computer Go programs had played only at the level of human amateurs.

    In Go, also called Igo and Baduk, two players place black and white pieces on a square grid, aiming to take more territory than their adversary.

    "It's a very beautiful game with extremely simple rules that lead to profound complexity. In fact, Go is probably the most complex game ever devised by humans," said Mr Hassabis, a former child chess prodigy.

    There are hundreds of places where a player can place the first stone, black or white, with hundreds of ways in which the opponent can respond and hundreds of possible responses to each of those in turn.

    Scientists have made AI strides in recent years, making computers think and learn more like people do.

    Mr Hassabis acknowledged some people might worry about the increasing capabilities of AI after the Go feat.

    But he added: "We're still talking about a game here."

    While AlphaGo learns in a more human-like way, it still needs many more games of practice, millions rather than thousands, than a human expert needs to get good at Go, Mr Hassabis said.

    Even so, he told BBC last year that if AI is used irresponsibly, "it could do harm".

    "People developing that - us and other companies and universities - need to realise and take seriously our responsibilities and to have ethical concerns at the top of our minds," he added.

    Some tech leaders and scientists have also cautioned on AI work. Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking warned in 2014 that "development of full AI could spell the end of the human race".

    Meanwhile, scientists foresee future applications for AI programs like AlphaGo including: improving smart phone assistants (Apple's Siri is an example), medical diagnostics and eventually collaborating with human scientists in research.