This is all completely fine.
Really, it’s fine. It’s normal. There’s nothing to worry about. I’m going to keep telling myself this until I start to believe it.
Earlier this year, Google’s Deepmind project AlphaGo became the first ever computer program to defeat a world champion at the ancient Chinese game of Go.
Many of us probably didn’t pay that much attention. Yes, Go is supposed to be massively more complicated a game to master than chess – but it’s been twenty years since Garry Kasparov lost a chess match to IBM’s Deep Blue, and you’d expect things to have moved on a little.
Well, if you’re feeling that complacent about the rate of change, consider this.
This week, Deepmind released details of their latest stunt. Their artificial-intelligence program AlphaZero has utterly annihilated Stockfish, the strongest chess-playing computer program in the world (and dramatically stronger than any human grandmaster).
That would be impressive in itself, but consider this. After being taught the rules of chess, AlphaZero set to work mastering the game, playing itself over and over again. Refining its ability at an incomprehensible speed.
No-one taught AlphaZero any chess opening theory. It wasn’t given any endgame tables. It was just told to get on with it.
After just four hours it had mastered chess, and was out-performing Stockfish.
In a 100-game match against Stockfish, AlphaZero won 28 times, drew on 72 occasions, and err.. never lost. AlphaZero taught itself, in just four hours, to be the greatest chess player the world has ever seen.
“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,” said grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen. “I feel now I know.”
A research paper, which has yet to be peer reviewed, has the techno-babble:
AlphaZero evaluates positions using non-linear function approximation based on a deep neural network, rather than the linear function approximation used in typical chess programs.
It’s clear that the AI software is approaching the problem of chess in a vastly different way to other chess programs. For instance, AlphaZero only had to examine 80,000 positions per second, compared to Stockfish’s 70 million. And yet Stockfish can’t beat it.
Like I said, this is all completely fine. The whole thing is only of interest to chess players, and you certainly shouldn’t worry about where this is all going to lead.