From Michael Nielson, Quanta Magazine, Is AlphaGo Really Such a Big Deal?
H/t 3QD.To begin, AlphaGo took 150,000 games played by good human players and used an artificial neural network to find patterns in those games. In particular, it learned to predict with high probability what move a human player would take in any given position. AlphaGo’s designers then improved the neural network by repeatedly playing it against earlier versions of itself, adjusting the network so it gradually improved its chance of winning.How does this neural network — known as the policy network — learn to predict good moves?Broadly speaking, a neural network is a very complicated mathematical model, with millions of parameters that can be adjusted to change the model’s behavior. When I say the network “learned,” what I mean is that the computer kept making tiny adjustments to the parameters in the model, trying to find a way to make corresponding tiny improvements in its play. In the first stage of learning, the network tried to increase the probability of making the same move as the human players. In the second stage, it tried to increase the probability of winning a game in self-play. This sounds like a crazy strategy — repeatedly making tiny tweaks to some enormously complicated function — but if you do this for long enough, with enough computing power, the network gets pretty good. And here’s the strange thing: It gets good for reasons no one really understands, since the improvements are a consequence of billions of tiny adjustments made automatically.After these two training stages, the policy network could play a decent game of Go, at the same level as a human amateur. But it was still a long way from professional quality. In a sense, it was a way of playing Go without searching through future lines of play and estimating the value of the resulting board positions. To improve beyond the amateur level, AlphaGo needed a way of estimating the value of those positions.To get over this hurdle, the developers’ core idea was for AlphaGo to play the policy network against itself, to get an estimate of how likely a given board position was to be a winning one. That probability of a win provided a rough valuation of the position. (In practice, AlphaGo used a slightly more complex variation of this idea.) Then, AlphaGo combined this approach to valuation with a search through many possible lines of play, biasing its search toward lines of play the policy network thought were likely. It then picked the move that forced the highest effective board valuation.We can see from this that AlphaGo didn’t start out with a valuation system based on lots of detailed knowledge of Go, the way Deep Blue did for chess. Instead, by analyzing thousands of prior games and engaging in a lot of self-play, AlphaGo created a policy network through billions of tiny adjustments, each intended to make just a tiny incremental improvement. That, in turn, helped AlphaGo build a valuation system that captures something very similar to a good Go player’s intuition about the value of different board positions.