AlphaGo is breaking new ground in AI

AI (Artificial Intelligence) is in the news again. No, we are not talking about the latest Hollywood blockbuster featuring death dealing killer robots from the future, but a game of Go between the current world champion and an AI called AlphaGo created by Google owned DeepMind.
JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek MartinJPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin
JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin

As a game, Go is orders of magnitude more complex than Chess. To give you an example, there are 20 possible opening moves in Chess, while Go boasts a whopping 361 possible opening moves!

So how is AlphaGo performing in the face off with the world champion? The match is a best of five and currently (as I write this) Alpha Go has won the first two games. That is an incredible achievement and to quote Lee Se-dol (the world champion) after the second game: “Yesterday I was surprised but today it's more than that, I am quite speechless. Today I feel like AlphaGo played a nearly perfect game.”


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So how does this relate to the likes of you and me? We aren’t likely to play a game of Go against the best AI the world has to offer, nor are we likely to be world champions at the game! However, the technology being developed is being used in different ways that do affect our daily lives.

You may not have realised it, but Google are heavily invested in AI to provide accurate and useful search results as quickly as possible. You can see this in action when searching, as Google Search gets better at understanding natural language and related searches. Try asking Google ‘where is mount everest’ and then follow up with the search ‘how high is it.’ You might be surprised.

Then of course there are more obvious signs of AI creeping into the world. All of those cars with parking assist, or driving assist are the first tentative steps at producing self driving cars. As a technology, we aren’t comfortable trusting our entire driving experience to AI, so these little baby steps are needed. One day we may think it strange to have to grip a steering wheel. I mean, we are used to simple little things like the headlights coming on all by themselves when it gets dark and that is essentially AI at work right there, although we don’t even think of it in those terms any more.

Now don’t be scared by all the doomsayers and horror fiction writers that suggest the human race will be wiped out in a post apocalyptic landscape ruled over by our robotic overlords. That is attention grabbing and makes great films, but it is not reality. AI as we know it will be virtually invisible in years to come. It’s the little things that count - dictating and editing documents with just your voice, email software that filters out spam or that automatically prompts you to create reminders and route plans after you receive a confirmation from a hotel, cars that avoid collisions, etc. AI is very good at doing a few very specific things and is there to aid us. It has taken a long time to get where we are today and it will take even longer before we see real thinking robots.