AlphaGo has gotten much better since beating Lee Sedol and its creators are now trying to understand the idea of truly optimal play. I would have expected Go players to be pretty pissed about being made obsolete, but in fact they think of Go as a form of art and are awed and delighted to see it performed at superhuman levels.I think many fields have developed this way. There is a strategy, and someone develops a counter to that strategy, and somebody develops a counter to that, and so on, so that each move is determined by previous moves and nobody ever steps outside the discourse to consider novel approaches. I keep raising this with my son who plays an online game called League of Legends. Every team plays this in pretty much the same fairly obvious way, and I refuse to believe that it is necessarily the best way. Why, I keep asking, don't people experiment with radically different strategies? He replies that sometimes people do but they usually lose; I am not impressed by this answer, since one might have to employ a new strategy dozens of times to figure out the necessary nuances.
More interesting for the rest of us, AlphaGo is playing moves and styles that all human masters had dismissed as stupid centuries ago. Human champion Ke Jie said that:
After humanity spent thousands of years improving our tactics, computers tell us that humans are completely wrong. I would go as far as to say not a single human has touched the edge of the truth of Go.
One Go master said that he would have “slapped” a student for playing a strategy AlphaGo won with. A couple of people talked about how the quest for “optimal Go” wasn’t just about one game, but about grading human communities. Here we have this group of brilliant people who have been competing against each other for centuries, gradually refining their techniques. Did they come pretty close to doing as well as merely human minds could manage? Or did non-intellectual factors – politics, conformity, getting trapped at local maxima – cause them to ignore big parts of possibility-space? Right now it’s very preliminarily looking like the latter, which would be a really interesting result – especially if it gets replicated once AIs take over other human fields.
There was a guy who nearly wrecked naval wargaming a few years ago. He kept diving into the rule book to produce fleets that made no sense in real-world terms but were unbeatable in the game – for example he once used a vast fleet of immobile boats with no armor, each with one huge gun. Since most naval wargamers want to imagine themselves in actual historical situations, commanding fleets that make historical sense, this enraged them. Unable to write rules that prevented his crazy tactics, they eventually told him that they were just going to cancel all their tournaments until he agreed not to enter.
On a more serious note, politics. Did Donald Trump just show that the whole apparatus of parties and campaign staffs and strategists and ad buys is a complete waste of time compared to a clever twitter account? Maybe so. And Republicans in Congress seem to have hit on a pretty good new strategy for dealing with a President of the opposite party: refuse any cooperation, vote against everything, denounce him at every opportunity as an un-American extremist. I hated this, but I see pieces every day from Democrats arguing that they should now do exactly the same thing to Trump.
And what about real war? Surely the way the American military fights is not the best possible way.
It bears thinking on that the way we do things is dependent on the way our systems and habits have evolved over time, and the optimal solution is almost certainly something different.