AlphaGo Might Be The Most Effective Marketing Campaign Ever

Published in Online Spin, April 1, 2016.

The Los Angeles Times  said, “The results are in and history has been made… [This development] brings to a close the era of board games as benchmarks in computing.”

The milestone “was supposed to be 10 years away,” said Vox. “In Two Moves,” trumpeted Wired, “AlphaGo And Lee Sedol Redefined The Future.”

You’ve already heard about what an amazing feat it was. The ancient game of Go is a googol times more complex than chess, the total number of possible moves greater than the number of atoms in the universe. The best players make decisions on the basis of intuition and feel, areas in which humans have traditionally held a significant advantage over machines. So, um, yeah…well done, guys. Awesome.

So how come everyone I know seems to be going around acting like nothing has happened? Even I forget about AlphaGo for hours every day. Actually, now that I think about it, my life has changed precisely zero as a result of this so-called historic event.

And it won’t, not for some time. That’s because this is one of those developments that has layers upon layers. The first layer? That’s the win itself: extraordinary in terms of the vastness of the possibility space and the ability to use machine learning to navigate it in a totally new way.

Winning at Go, though, doesn’t make people’s lives better. For that, you have to get to the second layer, the implications of the win. Now that we have a machine that can learn in this way, one that can process vast amounts of data and extrapolate complex patterns better than humans can, how can we use it to benefit humanity?

In an interview with The Verge, Demis Hassabis, the co-founder of DeepMind (which created AlphaGo), said, “I think the sort of things you’ll see this kind of AI do is medical diagnosis of images and then maybe longitudinal tracking of vital signs or quantified self over time, and helping people have healthier lifestyles.”

It’s an understated way of looking at it. Later in the interview, he talks about CERN, pointing out that, “they create more data than pretty much anyone on the planet, and for all we know there could be new particles sitting on their massive hard drives somewhere, and no one’s got around to analyzing that because there’s just so much data. So I think it’d be cool if one day an AI was involved in finding a new particle.”

Finding a new particle. Helping us understand genetics and epigenetics, and reverse-engineering medicines that are tailored to each individual. Discovering another habitable planet, and a way to get there. Suddenly, the potential implications of this historic event start to touch more of us.

Which brings us to the third layer: The effect of the win.

Following AlphaGo’s win, the South Korean government announced over $800 million in spending to advance artificial intelligence research. The country is creating an AI research center with support from Samsung and LG Electronics, SKT, KT, Naver, and Hyundai Motors. The main political parties in Korea have added an engineer, a scientist and a mathematician to their rosters.

AlphaGo is a marketing campaign for the potential of artificial intelligence, more effective than any sales brochure, any social media strategy, any viral video.

In his long but excellent piece on Tesla, Wait But Why author Tim Urban expresses the counterintuitive notion that, “[t]he way technology works is that by default, it stands still, and it moves forward only when something pushes it forward.”

AlphaGo is that something. And now artificial intelligence will move forward.