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Google’s AI beats the world’s top chess engine w/ only 4 hours of practice

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2017

With just four hours of practice playing against itself and no study of outside material, AlphaZero (an upgraded version of Alpha Go, the AI program that Google built for playing Go) beat the silicon pants off of the world’s strongest chess program yesterday. This is massively and scarily impressive.

AlphaZero won the closed-door, 100-game match with 28 wins, 72 draws, and zero losses.

Oh, and it took AlphaZero only four hours to “learn” chess. Sorry humans, you had a good run.

That’s right — the programmers of AlphaZero, housed within the DeepMind division of Google, had it use a type of “machine learning,” specifically reinforcement learning. Put more plainly, AlphaZero was not “taught” the game in the traditional sense. That means no opening book, no endgame tables, and apparently no complicated algorithms dissecting minute differences between center pawns and side pawns.

This would be akin to a robot being given access to thousands of metal bits and parts, but no knowledge of a combustion engine, then it experiments numerous times with every combination possible until it builds a Ferrari. That’s all in less time that it takes to watch the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The program had four hours to play itself many, many times, thereby becoming its own teacher.

Grandmaster Peter Heine Nelson likened the experience of watching AlphaZero play to aliens:

After reading the paper but especially seeing the games I thought, well, I always wondered how it would be if a superior species landed on earth and showed us how they play chess. I feel now I know.

As I said about AlphaGo last year, our machines becoming unpredictable is unnerving:

Unpredictable machines. Machines that act more like the weather than Newtonian gravity. That’s going to take some getting used to.

Albert Silver has a good overview of AlphaZero’s history and what Google has accomplished. To many chess experts, it seemed as though AlphaZero was playing more like a human than a machine:

If Karpov had been a chess engine, he might have been called AlphaZero. There is a relentless positional boa constrictor approach that is simply unheard of. Modern chess engines are focused on activity, and have special safeguards to avoid blocked positions as they have no understanding of them and often find themselves in a dead end before they realize it. AlphaZero has no such prejudices or issues, and seems to thrive on snuffing out the opponent’s play. It is singularly impressive, and what is astonishing is how it is able to also find tactics that the engines seem blind to.

So, where does Google take AlphaZero from here? In a post which includes the phrase “Skynet Goes Live”, Tyler Cowen ventures a guess:

I’ve long said that Google’s final fate will be to evolve into a hedge fund.

Why goof around with search & display advertising when directly gaming the world’s financial market could be so much more lucrative?