There are many compelling candidates for the biggest story of 2016. The dramatic and unexpected shift toward populism. Donald Trump’s win. Brexit. Protectionism’s ascendancy over globalism. Putin’s undermining of western democracies. Allepo. The Islamic State. Terrorist attacks. Indeed, it was a year that the world seemed to turn upside down.
But looking back 50 years from now, I predict the biggest story of 2016 will be the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). Specifically, 2016 will remembered as the year a computer first demonstrated human intuition.
The ancient Chinese game of Go is considered the most complex game ever conceived by the human mind. A game of strategy and intuition, Go is said to have as many possible moves as there are atoms in the universe. Yes, computers have defeated humans at checkers, chess and Jeapordy. But in those cases it was a matter of brute force, conventional programming. The computer was simply fed all possible answers, all possible moves.
Go presented a different kind of challenge to Google’s DeepMind researchers when they set their sights on the defeat of the world’s best Go player with their artificial intelligence, AlphaGo. They couldn’t possibly use conventional brute force programming techniques to prepare for Lee Sedol. No, AlphaGo would have to learn how to beat the world champion.
They used deep learning, “a branch of machine learning based on a set of algorithms that attempt to model high level abstractions in data.” According to Wired Magazine, DeepMind researches fed “30 million human Go moves into a deep neural network, a network of hardware and software that loosely mimics the web of neurons in the human brain.” Then AlphaGo learned how to play Go at a world class level by practicing against a three-time Eurpean champion until researchers felt it was ready to take on Sedol in the best of five match watched online by millions worldwide.
AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol four games to one. But the moment that thrilled Go players and AI researchers alike occurred in Game 2. Move 37 — known in Go strategy as a “shoulder hit” — flummoxed observers and Lee Sedol, who rose stunned and left the room, only to resign a little over fours hours later. Here’s how Wired describes the historic move:
Move 37 showed that AlphaGo wasn’t just regurgitating years of programming or cranking through a brute-force predictive algorithm. It was the moment AlphaGo proved it understands, or at least appears to mimic understanding in a way that is indistinguishable from the real thing. From where Lee sat, AlphaGo displayed what Go players might describe as intuition, the ability to play a beautiful game not just like a person but in a way no person could…
AlphaGo knew to the extent that it could know anything that the move was a long shot. It knew that this was a move that professionals would not choose, and yet, as it started to search deeper and deeper, it was able to override that initial guide, Silver says. [David Silver is the researcher who led the creation of AlphaGo.] AlphaGo had, in a sense, started to think on its own. It was making decisions based not on a set of rules its creators had encoded in its digital DNA but on algorithms it had taught itself. It really discovered this for itself, through its own process of introspection and analysis.”
Much of what happened in 2016 will affect the arc of history; none so much as the emergence of artificial intelligence. A computer demonstrates human intuition. Thinks for itself. Discovers through introspection and analysis. Clearly, we are at an inflection point. Maybe like none before. That is the biggest story of 2016.