Alan Turing spent many evenings playing chess. As Turing had long been interested in the way computers might replicate the workings of a human brain, the potential for a chess-playing computer came comfortably to him. Turing approached the problem not by thinking of ways to use brute processing power to calculate every possible move; instead he focused on the possibility that a machine might learn how to play chess by repeated practice. Turing was laying the foundations for the field of machine learning. Machines would be able to do more than follow the set of instructions given to them by humans; they could learn from experience and refine their own instructions.

“It has been said that computing machines can only carry out the purposes that they are instructed to do,” he explained in a talk to the London Mathematical Society in February 1947. “But is it necessary that they should always be used in such a manner?” He then discussed the implications of a machine that could learn. “It would be like a pupil who had learnt much from his master, but had added more of his own work. When this happens I feel that one is obliged to regard the machine as showing intelligence.”

Seventy years later, Turing’s ideas were put to the test. On 7th December 2017, Google’s AlphaZero program competed against the Stockfish 8 program. The Stockfish 8 program represented the brute processing power approach. It had access to a combination of accumulated knowledge of human and computer experience in chess and could calculate 70 million chess positions per second. In contrast, AlphaZero performed only 80,000 such calculations per second and it was never taught how to play chess. Rather, AlphaZero learnt to play chess by playing against itself. Nevertheless, out of a hundred games the novice AlphaZero played against Stockfish, AlphaZero won twenty-eight and tied seventy-two.

This result has implications for humans and not just machines. In Buddhism, there is the concept of beginner’s mind which refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. Since AlphaZero learned nothing from any human, many of its winning moves and strategies seemed unconventional to human eyes. You might even say that AlphaZero was creative. For a human, solving problems through creative methods is commonly considered as a sign of genius.


The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

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