This message is written to be intelligible to young children about how
Alphago's mind works.
First, let's see how your own mind works, so we can compare the two.
Imagine a schoolyard of tweeting children passing little messages
around from hand to hand. Each individual tweets to several friends,
who in turn tweet to others. Tweets flow around the yard like currents
flow around the sea, which a bird's-eye view through a "tweet camera"
could see like water flowing in streams, pools and rivers.
Because of gravity, real water only flows downhill, but tweet water
can flow round and round in circles and spirals and all kinds of
Your brain is a schoolyard of tweeting neurons, each of which can have
hundreds or thousands of hands for receiving tweets from others and
passing on tweets of its own. A bird's-eye view of all this activity
seen through the lens of a magnetic resonance imaging camera produces
a video that looks like a city seen at night from high above, with
rivers of car headlights flowing around and building lights twinkling
on and off, as wonderfully filmed in timelapse in the cinematic
The messages that neurons tweet to each other are physically embodied
in concentrations of neurotransmitters with fancy names like
acetocholine and dopamine, but their meanings are simple yells: the
louder one neuron yells to another, the more likely the other will
hear it. Neurons have two different kinds of receiving hands, some
that are turned on by yells, and some that are turned off.
Each neuron receives yells from hundreds, sometimes thousands, of
others at a time. Chemical yells in synapses make waves of ionisations
in receiving hands called dendrites, which flow up to the Chief
Executive Officer (CEO) of the neuron, which is called the axon
hillock because from the outside it looks like a lump in your arm.
Like all CEOs, the axon hillock doesn't do much, because all the hard
work is done by others. All a CEO has to do is every now and then
decide between a shortlist of choices provided by his advisors, and
then tell other people what to do, and so on down the line until you
get to the true value-adders of any corporation or civilisation, the
manual labourers such as computer programmers, bricklayers, and
All a neuron's CEO has to do is every now and then do a simple sum of
all the 'on' yells minus all the 'off' yells and see whether that sum
is big enough to tickle its fancy. If it does, it lights up an
electrochemical wave down its trunk (its axon), which branches out to
its numerous tweet-sending hands (called axon terminals), which pass
its tweet onto those of its neighbours that it talks to.
A neuron's tweet is just one letter long. It's either on, or it's off.
It's binary, just like the signals flowing around inside a digital
computer. Neurobiologists call the tweet an "axon spike all or nothing
response" because they noticed that its intensity and frequency does
not change from one tweet to another - it's either there, or it's not
Now, you may think that just going tweet or not isn't enough to say
anything much, but Samuel Morse knew better, because any letter or
number can be represented as a string of on-or-off tweets (called
"bits" in IT jargon, short for "binary digit"). The code Morse devised
for flashing messages from one ship to another enabled ship captains
to coordinate their activities and fight battles as a team.
Sending messages is one thing, but being able to understand them is
quite another. It's easy to see how messages can be written in binary,
but what about figuring out their meanings? And deciding what to do
about them? How does your brain think? And how do you feel?
If you read back a little bit, you will see that i have already told
you the answer to all these deep philosphical and spiritual questions.
Remember the neuron CEO? It makes a decision; it chooses between 'yes'
and 'no' - between 'on' and 'off'.
Put a few building bricks together in the right way and you get a
house. Or a car. Or a computer.
That's right, your brain is a biological digital computer made of
billions of neuron CEOs and their assistant dendrites and axopn
terminals, assisted by manual workers like glial cells which keep
their bosses well fed and clean.
And so, finally, we come to Alphago.
She isn't a biological digital computer, nor is she just an adding
machine like a pocket calculator.
Or is she?
Alpha has lots of neurons too; they're a bit different from biological
neurons but not all that different, in terms of the function they
perform. They have their own electronic equivalent of tweet receving
and sending hands and their own equivalent of the neuron CEO which
does a pretty similar job - because its function was inspired by the
function of the biological neurons that are found in all animals with
brains, including sea slugs and starfish.
But that's where the similarity ends, for whereas biological neurons
can grow and shrink, and live and die, and make new friends and lose
old ones, artificial neurons are more like soldiers lined up in rows
that only do what they're told to do when they're told to do it.
Nevertheless, they can be told to learn, to change their CEOs'
decisonmaking behaviours. If all goes well, CEOs are given a bonus,
but if things go badly, they are turned down - if only that happened
to the human CEOs that robbed the poor of their savings in 1929 and
2008 and did all sorts of other awful things like starting and
financing wars! But that''s another story....
One drop in the ocean doesn't make much difference, and changing one
CEO's mind doesn't make much difference. But an ocean is made of
drops, so if you change a lot of them, you change the way the whole
Alpha's neurons do a pretty good job of guessing what is a good move,
but because you can't really know what's truly good or bad until you
try it out, Alpha has another trick up her sleeve: she guesses what
the future will bring by rolling dice.
Yes, you heard it right - she just guesses! She follows her guesses
all the way to the end of the game, sees who won, and then sends that
information back down the line (actually, back down the tree of lines,
which branches at every move) to improve her estimates of the values
of her initial guess, and carries on doing that until either she's
pretty sure she's found as good a move as she can, or her automatic
alarm clock tells her to just choose because the clock is ticking.
Lee Sedol and the rest of us should scratch our heads as well as shake
them in dismay, for we all have been beaten at our own game by a
dumbass box of tricks that just guesses. Fancy that!
i ink, therefore i spam
"J'ai toujours succombe a la tentation de raisonner pour comprendre" - Peter Hoeg