17 March 2016 marked an important milestone in the march of technology.  Google’s AlphaGo artificial intelligence program defeated Go’s world champion no less than three times out of four. In a match consisting of the best of five games, AlphaGo was therefore the winner.

The game of Go is thought to date back to ancient China, several thousand years ago.  The rules are much simpler than those of chess, but a player typically has a choice of 200 moves, compared with about 20 in chess.  The number of possible moves is astronomical: there are literally more possible positions in Go than atoms in the universe, according the DeepMind’s team (the developers of AlphaGo).  It can be very difficult to determine who is winning, and many of the top human players rely on instinct.

Indeed, this ancient board game is so computationally demanding that even a decade ago some researchers thought a computer would never defeat a human expert.  After just five moves, the board can be in any of more than 5 trillion arrangements.  In total, the number of different possible arrangements stretches beyond 10 to the power of 100! – far beyond the possibility of a computer playing by brute force computation of all possible outcomes. 

It’s only because the computer, AlphaGo, has been programmed to rely on ‘deep neural networks’ which have the capacity to learn, that it has succeeded.  Its ‘machine learning’ tools enable it to teach itself and to think more like humans.  The researchers fed it a database of 30 million board configurations and subsequent plays by expert players, then the computer played against itself over and over again thus learning from experience to tell a better move from a poorer one.  One researcher said:

The way we've developed the system, it plays more like a human does.

The contest between the world champion and AlphaGo is being seen as a major test of what scientists and engineers have achieved in the sphere of AI.  After the second match, world champion Lee Se-dol said:

Yesterday I was surprised but today it’s more than that.  I am quite speechless.  Today I feel like AlphaGo played a nearly perfect game.

When he won one game against the computer, he said:

I’ve never been congratulated so much because I’ve won one game.

Back in October 2015, AlphaGo won against the European Go champion – an achievement that was not expected for years. Science magazine ran this article, by Adrian Cho:

Huge leap forward: Computer that mimics human brain beats professional at game of Go

Lee Se-dol, however, is considered to be the greatest Go player ever, and he has faced defeat against AlphaGo.  Because the computer is programmed to learn and improve from its mistakes, it is now considerably stronger than when it beat the European champion last year.

Man’s ability to construct a machine of such complexity and ability is truly amazing, and it is an indication of the incredible ingenuity God deposited within the human brain – something which sets man apart from the rest of creation. 

AlphaGo is seen as a celebration of man’s ability.  He has created a machine that can ‘think’ and ‘learn’ and can outwit the most intelligent humans.  Scientists and engineers are probably already well on the way with the next development – for they won’t stop now.   Google representatives (who own AlphaGo) remarked after the one defeat in the series of games against Lee Se-dol that the defeat was ‘very valuable’ for AlphaGo, as it identified a problem which they could now try to fix.

Whilst acknowledging the incredible achievement, we do well to exercise caution.  Machines that are board game winners are benign, but other developments may not be.  Machines that can outwit humans in other arenas, and which ‘learn’ from their mistakes until they are infallible are potentially very dangerous.  Science-fiction is full of such stories. 

We’re living on the brink of the days when man has the knowledge to be like God, and believes he has outlived the need for a God.  But man is pressing forward without any acknowledgement of the Creator who gave him the ability to build such things in the first place, with a lack of wisdom and without any moral or spiritual context for what he may produce.  The resulting dystopia is something we must be prepared for. 

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