Photo: China Stringer Network / Reuters

The AI That Has Nothing to Learn From Humans

DeepMind’s new self-taught Go-playing program is making moves that other players describe as “alien” and “from an alternate dimension.”

The Atlantic
Published in
7 min readOct 20, 2017


By Dawn Chan

It was a tense summer day in 1835 Japan. The country’s reigning Go player, Honinbo Jowa, took his seat across a board from a 25-year-old prodigy by the name of Akaboshi Intetsu. Both men had spent their lives mastering the two-player strategy game that’s long been popular in East Asia. Their face-off, that day, was high-stakes: Honinbo and Akaboshi represented two Go houses fighting for power, and the rivalry between the two camps had lately exploded into accusations of foul play.

Little did they know that the match — now remembered by Go historians as the “blood-vomiting game” — would last for several grueling days. Or that it would lead to a grisly end.

Early on, the young Akaboshi took a lead. But then, according to lore, “ghosts” appeared and showed Honinbo three crucial moves. His comeback was so overwhelming that, as the story goes, his junior opponent keeled over and began coughing up blood. Weeks later, Akaboshi was found dead. Historians have speculated that he might have had an undiagnosed respiratory disease.

It makes a certain kind of sense that the game’s connoisseurs might have wondered if they’d seen glimpses of the occult in those three so-called ghost moves. Unlike something like tic-tac-toe, which is straightforward enough that the optimal strategy is always clear-cut, Go is so complex that new, unfamiliar strategies can feel astonishing, revolutionary, or even uncanny.

Unfortunately for ghosts, now it’s computers that are revealing these goosebump-inducing moves.

As many will remember, AlphaGo — a program that used machine learning to master Go — decimated world champion Ke Jie earlier this year. Then, the program’s creators at Google’s DeepMind let the program continue to train by playing millions of games against itself. In a paper published in Nature earlier this week, DeepMind revealed that a new version of AlphaGo (which they christened AlphaGo Zero) picked up Go from scratch, without studying any human games at all. AlphaGo Zero took a…