AI programs that play games

One of the very best media items I’ve found is this feature-length documentary about the program that beat an international master at the game of Go in 2016. It’s excellent as a documentary film — well-paced, sparking curiosity, exciting in some parts, and never pedantic.

You don’t need to understand anything about the game (which is immensely popular in China, Japan, and Korea, but not widely played elsewhere). It’s explained visually so that you can appreciate what’s going on. The film is free to watch on YouTube.

As a resource for learning about AI — or, more specifically, about machine learning — the film excels at helping us understand the work of the team of humans that created and trained the AlphaGo program. We don’t see a lot of people sitting at computer keyboards, typing. There are clustered people pointing at a screen, talking enthusiastically, or saying, “What happened there? Why did it do that?”

Probably my favorite moment in the film is after Lee Se-dol, the human Go master, has played a move that is so great, it was later referred to as “the God move.” The AlphaGo team begins analyzing the program’s responses in real-time, watching the graphs of its probability calculations on a large screen in their command center. For all the talk of AI as a black box that makes decisions humans can”t comprehend, this scene demonstrates that AI can be made transparent and accountable.

There’s much, much more to love about this documentary. The director, Greg Kohs, had extraordinary access to the DeepMind team during the months leading up to the five-game match with Lee. In the end, Google financed a general-audience-friendly film. (Google acquired DeepMind in 2014.)

In an interview with CNET, Kohs said the film “had very modest beginnings.”

“A couple members of Google’s creative lab that I’d worked with before gave me a ring and said we’d have access behind the curtain with [DeepMind founder and CEO] Demis Hassabis and his team. So I jumped on board with the expectation we would just film what happens for archival purposes and then put it on a shelf on a hard drive and that would be the end of it.”

Greg Kohs

Another wonderful aspect of the film is its humanity. I’ve seen a fair number of “scare essays” that predict the end of everything as AI gains dominance over its creators — but here we hear a more nuanced and thought-provoking set of views and reactions.

First, there is Lee, possibly the best (human) Go player who has ever lived, in closeup, in the very moment of his realization that the machine has bested him. Then there are the other Go experts, who understand more than you or I what the machine has actually done. Finally, there are the team members of DeepMind, who built the machine. Of course they are happy, ecstatically happy — but they are humbled, and even awed, as well.

At the end of 2019, Lee Se-dol retired as a professional Go player, at age 36. He is the only human who has ever defeated AlphaGo in tournament play.

More about AlphaGo:

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