Will robots one day destroy us? It’s a question that increasingly preoccupies many of our most brilliant scientists and tech entrepreneurs.
For developments in artificial intelligence (AI) — machines programmed to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence — are poised to reshape our workplace and leisure time dramatically.
This year, a leading Oxford academic, Professor Michael Wooldridge, warned MPs that AI could go ‘rogue’, that machines might become so complex that the engineers who create them will no longer understand them or be able to predict how they function.
Yes, it’s a concern, but a ‘historic’ new development makes unpredictable decisions by AI machines the least of our worries. And it all started with a game of chess.
AlphaZero, an AI computer program, this month proved itself to be the world’s greatest ever chess champion, thrashing a previous title-holder, another AI system called Stockfish 8, in a 100-game marathon.
So far, so nerdy, and possibly something only chess devotees or computer geeks might get excited about.
But what’s so frighteningly clever about AlphaZero is that it taught itself chess in just four hours. It was simply given the rules and — crucially — instructed to learn how to win by playing against itself.
In doing so, it assimilated hundreds of years of chess knowledge and tactics — but then went on to surpass all previous human invention in the game.
In those 240 minutes of practice, the program not only taught itself how to play but developed tactics that are unbeatably innovative — and revealed its startling ability to trounce human intelligence. Some of its winning moves had never been recorded in the 1,500 years that human brains have pitted wits across the chequered board.
Employing your King as an attacking piece? Unprecedented. But AlphaZero wielded it with merciless self-taught logic.
Garry Kasparov, the grandmaster who was famously defeated by IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997 when it was pre-programmed with the best moves, said: ‘The ability of a machine to surpass centuries of human knowledge . . . is a world-changing tool.’
Simon Williams, the English grandmaster, claimed this was ‘one for the history books’ and joked: ‘On December 6, 2017, AlphaZero took over the chess world . . . eventually solving the game and finally enslaving the human race as pets.’
The wider implications are indeed chilling, as I will explain.
AlphaZero was born in London, the brainchild of a UK company called DeepMind, which develops computer programs that learn for themselves. It was bought by Google for £400 million in 2014.
The complex piece of programming that created AlphaZero can be more simply described as an algorithm — a set of mathematical instructions or rules that can work out answers to problems.
The other term for it is a ‘deep machine learning’ tool. The more data that an AI such as AlphaZero processes, the more it teaches itself — by reprogramming itself with the new knowledge.
In this way, its problem-solving powers become stronger all the time, multiplying its intelligence at speeds and scales far beyond the abilities of a human brain. As a result it is unconstrained by the limits of human thinking, as its success in chess proved.
But the real purpose of such artificial intelligence goes far beyond playing board games against other boxes of silicon chips. It is already starting to make life-or-death decisions in the high-tech world of cancer diagnosis.
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