Have You Watched “AlphaGo”?

I’m not sure how I heard about this documentary; I’m guessing someone recommended it to me and I stuck it on my Netflix list. I’m glad I did, because I recently watched it, and it was utterly fascinating.

The core concept shown in the movie is how a company called DeepMind created an AI for the ancient board game Go. Most of the documentary follows an event where the AI–called “AlphaGo”–is pitted against one of the world’s best Go players, Lee Sedol.

For such a simple movie, it’s riveting to watch the drama unfold. In case you want to watch it, I won’t spoil any plot points here. However, there was one revelation that I wanted to share here.

Throughout the competition, AlphaGo makes some odd moves. Moves that professional Go players would consider bad moves. But, as it turns out, the moves cascade into non-traditional strategies that result in a significantly higher probability of victory than more standard moves.

The reason, as the developers determined, is that AlphaGo doesn’t have an ego. Specifically, it doesn’t care about the margin of victory. Go is a game about acquiring the most points, but just like in most games and sports, it doesn’t matter if you win by 1 point or 20 points–a win is a win. The margin of victory doesn’t matter as long as you win.

It’s human nature to pursue bigger victories. While part of this is ego, part of it is also strategic–if you have the chance to score a goal in soccer, you’re going to do it, because it’s easier to hold on to a 2-0 lead than a 1-0 lead.

But that isn’t always the case. In fact, in many cases, trying to increase a margin of victory can actually decrease the probability that you’ll win. If your goal is to win, the priority is to have more points than other players, not significantly more. 

Of course, AlphaGo is able to look 40 or so turns into the future for each possible move it makes, a calculation that isn’t feasible for human players. But I still found it fascinating that it revealed an element of human nature that feels somewhat counterintuitive.

I play games for many reasons, but I do enjoy winning (especially if everyone still has a good time). So I’m going to try to keep this in mind in the future, especially in 2-player games (it seems much more difficult to try to constantly evaluate the possible scores of several other players, especially without slowing down the game).

Have you watched AlphaGo? What was your biggest takeaway from it? Also, coincidentally, the NY Times just recently featured this article about an AI system that can read human bluffs in poker.


4 Responses to “Have You Watched “AlphaGo”?”

  1. Baker Mitchell says:

    Hey Jamey, I’ll have to add Alpha-Go to my watch list. I did read the NYT article about the AI poker player. I, like countless others, started playing Texas Holden in 2004 after a complete amateur, Chris Moneymaker, won the main event in the Workd Series of Poker. I loved playing with my friends. It was never for much money, but we played very competitively, but friendly. I read almost all of the classic poker theory books, and it’s all about math. Knowing and understanding the math better led to better outcomes. But as humans, we are emotional and beautifully messy beings. We make mistakes in poker or we get a pair of pocket aces and your pulse rises. This is the fun part, the human interaction which is enjoyable.

    Now, I find it incredibly fascinating that an algorithm can be so good it usually wins against human players. But, isn’t that what built Vegas? A system ( the games) was created based on math and one player ( the casino) has just a very slight mathematical advantage, and because people are emotional and can feel lucky, Vegas always wins. I wonder how Spock would do playing poker or gambling. He probably would find it illogical to gamble, and no one would want to play him in poker.

    You mention in Alpha-go the effect of Ego and winning by 1 point is the same as winning by 20. Can you think of any games where increasing your margin of victory makes it less likely to win at the end? Perhaps a blowout in round one causes a disadvantage in round two. There is a game ( I can’t tho k of the name). But the winner is the player who comes in second.

    Also in sports, a down to the wire victory by one point is much more enjoyable then a blowout ( but Alphago wouldn’t care either way)

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Baker: Well, I’m thinking that there are many games involving victory points where if you focus on the margin of victory instead of just doing better than opponents, you may veer down the wrong path (if your goal is victory). Like, in Scythe, if you’re just trying to get more points, you may choose not to end the game just so you can get more points. But in reality, it’s almost always better to be the one to end the game in Scythe.

      • Baker Mitchell says:

        Ah, very true of Scythe. There is another game, Flamme Rouge – a bicycle racing game, which I have not played, but I’ve heard that being too far ahead is a disadvantage because you’re not able to draft behind other players, and therefore it is beneficial to stay with the group until near the end. Have you played this one? Thoughts?

        • Jamey Stegmaier says:

          I have played it, though it’s been a while. That’s a great example. I bet it applies to other racing games too–if you’re too focused on pulling out ahead, you might run out of gas to finish the race.

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