Thought travel

12:30 AM August 23, 2019

Let me begin with an excerpt from the latest book of a great thinker in our time, Yuval Noah Harari:

“On December 7, 2017, a critical milestone was reached, not when a computer defeated a human at chess—that’s old news—but when Google’s AlphaZero program defeated the Stockfish 8 program. Stockfish 8 was the world’s computer chess champion for 2016. It had access to centuries of accumulated human experience in chess, as well as decades of computer experience. It was able to calculate seventy million chess positions per second. In contrast, AlphaZero performed only eighty thousand such calculations per second, and its human creators had not taught it any chess strategies—not even standard openings. Rather, AlphaZero used the latest machine-learning principles to self-learn chess by playing against itself. Nevertheless, out of a hundred games the novice AlphaZero played against Stockfish, AlphaZero won twenty-eight and tied seventy-two. It didn’t lose even once.


Since AlphaZero had learned nothing from any human, many of its winning moves and strategies seemed unconventional to the human eye. They may well be considered creative, if not downright genius. Can you guess how long it took AlphaZero to learn chess from scratch, prepare for the match against Stockfish, and develop its genius instincts? Four hours. That’s not a typo. For centuries, chess was considered one of the crowning glories of human intelligence. AlphaZero went from utter ignorance to creative mastery in four hours, without the help of any human guide.18 AlphaZero is not the only imaginative software out there. Many programs now routinely outperform human chess players not just in brute calculation but even in “creativity.”

In human-only chess tournaments, judges are constantly on the lookout for players who try to cheat by secretly getting help from computers. One of the ways to catch cheaters is to monitor the level of originality players display. If they play an exceptionally creative move, the judges will often suspect that it cannot possibly be a human move—it must be a computer move. At least in chess, creativity is already considered to be the trademark of computers rather than humans! So if chess is our canary in the coal mine, we are duly warned that the canary is dying. What is happening today to human-AI chess teams might happen down the road to human-AI teams in policing, medicine, and banking too.”


Is this the future, then? Yes, because we are looking at the tip of the iceberg. No, because AlphaZero has been a reality for several years. While the above-mentioned chess match was in 2017, we can only assume that it took several years to build AlphaZero. The future, yes, but the future already unfolding, the immediate future, not the future ten years from now, and definitely not the future when our new K – 12 students will face when AlphaZero will have had several upgrades.

AI (Artificial Intelligence) is penetrating many global industries already. Driver-less cars are a prime example of how AI is already dictating the car manufacturing industry. All major carmakers are in different stages of developing their own models with a few already having public trials. How many people who drive cars today will not need to ten years from now? The Land Transportation Office may be giving more licenses to cars than to human beings in one or two decades while our masonry operators and drivers are still quarreling whether to modernize 30 to 50-year-old machines.

In full view and widely used but whose implications remain largely under-appreciated, we have our own popular ATM machines. I first experienced them 40 years ago in a visit to San Francisco in the United States. Today, I see them in the provinces here but just a few outside of the main cities or town centers. Many do not even bother to imagine how many people were not hired anymore by the banks because of ATMs – which literally mean Automated Teller Machines.

Every industry has its equivalent of ATMs, some automated work that took the place of human beings doing the work before, from farming to manufacturing. The rate of automation will not be as slow as the last 50 years; it will be shockingly fast from this year onward. I think it was Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba and China’s richest man, who offered what seemed like radical advice to a TV audience last year, pinpointed education and said, “Everything we teach should be different from machines.” He then suggested that we teach our children more about sports, music, the arts, the “soft part” because teaching them what machines can learn, especially knowledge-based, will mean machines will do better than them.

Jack Ma knows what he is talking about because his massive business is deep in the use of AI. He also knows he has competitors doing the same so they, too, can be better than Alibaba. More than that, he knows the rest of the world of business is doing the same as much as each one can. And business to most of us and our children means employment and income. The future of the Philippines is already the present in many areas in the United States, Japan, and Western Europe. It is bad enough to be way behind now when we realize that the pace of changes becomes much faster tomorrow.

Change will also mean creating new jobs even if old jobs disappear. But opportunities for new jobs in the immediate and near future will mean new skill sets. Most of these new skill sets may be yet speculative. What is not subject to doubt is that the old skill sets will be obsolete if they are matched against machines with awesome capacity. We might as well start to gamble on what may be speculative than insist on what will be obsolete. Maybe, Jack Ma is more right than not when he says we Filipinos can focus on the creative and personal, on the “soft-ware.” Why not? That is us.

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TAGS: AlphaZero program, Jose Ma. Montelibano, Stockfish 8 program, Yuval Noah Harari
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