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Google AI algorithm masters ancient game of Go

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The feat shows the power of deep learning, which is going from success to success, says Coulom. “Deep learning is killing every problem in AI.”

The best human players of chess, draughts and backgammon have all been outplayed by computers. But a hefty handicap was needed for computers to win at Go. Now Google’s London-based AI company, DeepMind, claims that its machine has mastered the game.

DeepMind’s program AlphaGo beat Fan Hui, the European Go champion, five times out of five in tournament conditions, the firm reveals in research published in Nature on 27 January. It also defeated its silicon-based rivals, winning 99.8% of games against the current best programs. The program has yet to play the Go equivalent of a world champion, but a match against South Korean professional Lee Sedol, considered by many to be the world’s strongest player, is scheduled for March. “We’re pretty confident,” says DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis.

“This is a really big result, it’s huge,” says Rémi Coulom, a programmer in Lille, France, who designed a commercial Go program called Crazy Stone. He had thought computer mastery of the game was a decade away.

The IBM chess computer Deep Blue, which famously beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997, was explicitly programmed to win at the game. But AlphaGo was not preprogrammed to play Go: rather, it learned using a general-purpose algorithm that allowed it to interpret the game’s patterns, in a similar way to how a DeepMind program learned to play 49 different arcade games.

This means that similar techniques could be applied to other AI domains that require recognition of complex patterns, long-term planning and decision-making, says Hassabis. “A lot of the things we’re trying to do in the world come under that rubric.” Examples are using medical images to make diagnoses or treatment plans, and improving climate-change models.

In China, Japan and South Korea, Go is hugely popular and is even played by celebrity professionals. But the game has long interested AI researchers because of its complexity. The rules are relatively simple: the goal is to gain the most territory by placing and capturing black and white stones on a 19 × 19 grid. But the average 150-move game contains more possible board configurations — 10170 — than there are atoms in the Universe, so it can’t be solved by algorithms that search exhaustively for the best move.

It was programmed to learn games, not programmed to learn Go!

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