January 24, 2017
In February of 1996, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer faced off in a best-of-six chess match against Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion. In a nail-biting battle between man and machine, Kasparov managed to defeat the supercomputer with four victories and two losses. One year later, an upgraded Deep Blue returned to challenge Kasparov, and the worlds of chess and technology were shaken as Deep Blue became the first computer in history to defeat a world chess champion.
In board games, the “final test” for Artificial Intelligence has been the ancient Chinese game, Go. While the rules of Go are elegantly simple, the 19-by-19 grid on which the game is played gives rise to a complexity which is almost mind-numbing. Dwarfing chess, Go possesses more possibilities than the total number of atoms in the visible universe. If you’d really like to see some of the crazy numbers associated with Go, take a look at the “Go and Mathematics” article on Wikipedia and scroll down to the “Legal Positions” section.
Deep Blue defeated Kasparov using “brute force” methods, which simply meant that to decide its next move, the computer would look at every possible move for the next 10 to 20 moves, and then pick the move which would bring it closer to a state of victory. The fairly limited number of moves in chess allowed the supercomputer to do this, but it’s simply not possible to use the same strategy in Go.
In some people’s opinions, a computer could never rival a professional Go player. At high levels, professionals make decisions with what can only be described as “intuition”, and how could a computer ever be described as “intuitive?” To everyone’s surprise, Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo became the first program to beat a top-ranked professional Go player in 2016!
Why does this matter? To most of the world’s population, Go and chess are just board games, so why are all these companies and researchers sinking so much money and effort into developing these programs? It turns out that the same technology used to beat humans at chess and Go is used for tons of other things, such as recognizing songs with Shazam, driverless cars and cancer research. We’re living in an era where the links between virtually every field of study are becoming more and more visible every day, and the value of interdisciplinary research is impossible to ignore.
Technology is helping us solve problems, but we’re also seeing many new issues exacerbated or even spawned by the influence technology has on our lives. From Monsanto’s GMOs, to drones in war zones, to our ever-shrinking sense of privacy under surveillance, we’re seeing otherwise amazing technology being used to oppress and profit.
As soon as we peek into the world of technology, we’re hit with a barrage of strange concepts, opinions and jargon. What does “Artificial Intelligence” even mean? Do we really all have to learn to code now? Why are so many people mad about Apple dropping the headphone jack? In this column, we’ll be discussing questions like these, looking at some of the weird and wonderful niche communities on the Internet, and even getting our hands dirty playing around with some data.
So, spin up your floppy disks, put on your green-tinted hacking goggles and get ready to read about some tech.
(This was originally published in the Capilano Courier in January 2017)