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'Stronger than the strongest human': AlphaGo software outsmarts board game champion

University of Alberta Artificial Intelligence alumni helped develop the groundbreaking program.

Ryan Hayward was involved with an artificially intelligent machine that defeated the world's best Go player

Kevin Tuong/For Metro

Ryan Hayward was involved with an artificially intelligent machine that defeated the world's best Go player

University of Alberta alumni helped develop a computer program that’s poised to outsmart humanity.

Named AlphaGo, the program is in China this week taking on the world’s top human player of Go – an ancient Chinese board game said to be the most complicated in existence – and it’s winning.

“If you had been asking me a few years ago, how long before we see a computer program strong enough to beat the best human at Go, I was thinking it would be not in my lifetime,” said Ryan Hayward, a professor in the U of A’s computing science program.

“It came out of nowhere, was a huge step forward in artificial intelligence. And now it’s stronger than the strongest human.”

AlphaGo is taking on 19-year-old world champion Ke Jie in a three-game match that spans five days this week, and it won the first game handily on Tuesday.

The software was developed in London by Google’s DeepMind, in part by U of A alumni David Silver and Aja Huang, who both studied with Hayward.

Hayward has little doubt the program will pull off the final two games, which can last several hours.

“AlphaGo was not sweating at all,” Hayward said. “I mean I know that computers don’t sweat, but it was very, very comfortable.”

Chinese authorities are less excited about the prospect of their homegrown champ getting trounced by a computer program, however – Hayward said China has blocked live streams of the match within its borders and blocked physical access from some people viewing the match.

“I’m thinking that If Ke Jie were wining then they would be live streaming it. But because he’s not winning, they don’t want to publicize that a foreign-developed AI is better than the best Chinese Go player,” Hayward said.

The U of A has a world-renowned artificial intelligence program that got new federal funding last month.

Researchers at the university developed the first computer program to defeat the world’s top checkers players, and the U of A was also involved with the software that dominated humans at chess.

Hayward said Go is the final frontier of board games, but the development has broader, more practical applications, from airline scheduling to routing online purchases.

“Many problems that you’re solving, you’re looking at lots of possible alternative solutions – you’re just figuring out which is the best one,” he said.


Metro file

Go is a two-player board game that was invented in China more than 2,500 years ago.  

The game is played with black and white pieces called “stones” on a board with a 19X19 grid, and the objective is to surround a greater total area of the board than the opposing player.

It is more complex than chess, with a bigger board and more choices to consider – the possibilities of moves outnumber the total number of atoms in the visible universe.

Go is one of the most popular games in the world, with millions of players in East Asia. The International Go Federation has 75 member countries.

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