Google Defeats the Master of Go: Three Lessons for Humans

Alpha Go, a Google computer, beat at go a Korean master of the game, Sendol Lee, 33, one of the world’s top players. He was undefeated until then. A strategy game for two-players, go involves conquering territory moving its black and white chips on a grid of 19 squares by 19 squares. As the game allows for a larger number of movements, it is more complex than chess. Lee admitted defeat after three and a half hours—games may run for much longer than that—and attributed the computer’s victory to its ability to make moves based only on rational reasons, rather than rash judgments induced by emotions, especially those strong ones that competitive games are apt to inspire in players. Prior to the game, however, Lee had appeared confident and doubted the computer’s capacity to beat him because, by its very make up, the machine lacked “human intuition.” Alpha Go was built by Google’s artificial intelligence division Deep Mind. Its head, Demis Hassabis, called the victory a “historic moment.” But is it? Yes, in the sense of yet another landmark of the race between man and machine. It took quite some time for a computer to master the very difficult game after DeepBlue, an IBM supercomputer, check-mated Garry Kasparov, then world chess champion, in 1997. But we should not read too much into this victory at go, a game originated in China more than 3,000 years ago, due to the first of three lessons we humans can draw from it:

  1. A supercomputer will have more information processing and storage capacity than a human brain, hence it will often, if not always, beat humans in our own game (or, rather, what used to be “our” games);
  2. The comment of Lee invites to ponder what “intuition” is: is it an ability to predict outcomes even in the absence of elements of judgment, and for which we use our five senses to add up, so to speak, a sixth one? Is it not, therefore, another form of intelligence? We should dust off Kant’s books;
  3. We still find challenge empowering. The day will come when even the tiniest chess or go software on a smartphone will beat masters. Yet even centuries after humans created machines that attain speeds that humans never will, we still run marathons, if only for fun, unlike the Greek soldier who in 490 B.C. right after the Battle of Marathon, a town on the Aegean, ran the 26 miles to Athens to bring the news that the Greeks had defeated the Persians.

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