Our creative, beautiful, unpredictable machines  MAR 11 2016

I have been following with fascination the match between Google's Go-playing AI AlphaGo and top-tier player Lee Sedol and with even more fascination the human reaction to AlphaGo's success. Many humans seem unnerved not only by AlphaGo's early lead in the best-of-five match but especially by how the machine is playing in those games.

Then, with its 19th move, AlphaGo made an even more surprising and forceful play, dropping a black piece into some empty space on the right-hand side of the board. Lee Sedol seemed just as surprised as anyone else. He promptly left the match table, taking an (allowed) break as his game clock continued to run. "It's a creative move," Redmond said of AlphaGo's sudden change in tack. "It's something that I don't think I've seen in a top player's game."

When Lee Sedol returned to the match table, he took an usually long time to respond, his game clock running down to an hour and 19 minutes, a full twenty minutes less than the time left on AlphaGo's clock. "He's having trouble dealing with a move he has never seen before," Redmond said. But he also suspected that the Korean grandmaster was feeling a certain "pleasure" after the machine's big move. "It's something new and unique he has to think about," Redmond explained. "This is a reason people become pros."

"A creative move." Let's think about that...a machine that is thinking creatively. Whaaaaaa... In fact, AlphaGo's first strong human opponent, Fan Hui, has credited the machine for making him a better player, a more beautiful player:

As he played match after match with AlphaGo over the past five months, he watched the machine improve. But he also watched himself improve. The experience has, quite literally, changed the way he views the game. When he first played the Google machine, he was ranked 633rd in the world. Now, he is up into the 300s. In the months since October, AlphaGo has taught him, a human, to be a better player. He sees things he didn't see before. And that makes him happy. "So beautiful," he says. "So beautiful."

Creative. Beautiful. Machine? What is going on here? Not even the creators of the machine know:

"Although we have programmed this machine to play, we have no idea what moves it will come up with," Graepel said. "Its moves are an emergent phenomenon from the training. We just create the data sets and the training algorithms. But the moves it then comes up with are out of our hands -- and much better than we, as Go players, could come up with."

Generally speaking,1 until recently machines were predictable and more or less easily understood. That's central to the definition of a machine, you might say. You build them to do X, Y, & Z and that's what they do. A car built to do 0-60 in 4.2 seconds isn't suddenly going to do it in 3.6 seconds under the same conditions.

Now machines are starting to be built to think for themselves, creatively and unpredictably. Some emergent, non-linear shit is going on. And humans are having a hard time figuring out not only what the machine is up to but how it's even thinking about it, which strikes me as a relatively new development in our relationship. It is not all that hard to imagine, in time, an even smarter AlphaGo that can do more things -- paint a picture, write a poem, prove a difficult mathematical conjecture, negotiate peace -- and do those things creatively and better than people.

Unpredictable machines. Machines that act more like the weather than Newtonian gravity. That's going to take some getting used to. For one thing, we might have to stop shoving them around with hockey sticks. (thx, twitter folks)

Update: AlphaGo beat Lee in the third game of the match, in perhaps the most dominant fashion yet. The human disquiet persists...this time, it's David Ormerod:

Move after move was exchanged and it became apparent that Lee wasn't gaining enough profit from his attack.

By move 32, it was unclear who was attacking whom, and by 48 Lee was desperately fending off White's powerful counter-attack.

I can only speak for myself here, but as I watched the game unfold and the realization of what was happening dawned on me, I felt physically unwell.

Generally I avoid this sort of personal commentary, but this game was just so disquieting. I say this as someone who is quite interested in AI and who has been looking forward to the match since it was announced.

One of the game's greatest virtuosos of the middle game had just been upstaged in black and white clarity.

AlphaGo's strength was simply remarkable and it was hard not to feel Lee's pain.

  1. Let's get the caveats out of the way here. Machines and their outputs aren't completely deterministic. Also, with AlphaGo, we are talking about a machine with a very limited capacity. It just plays one game. It can't make a better omelette than Jacques Pepin or flow like Nicki. But not only beating a top human player while showing creativity in a game like Go, which was considered to be uncrackable not that long ago, seems rather remarkable.

Read more posts on kottke.org about:
AlphaGo   artificial intelligence   David Ormerod   Fan Hui   games   Go   Google   Lee Sedol   robots

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