(An alternate version of this article was originally published in the Boston Globe)
On December 2nd, 1942, a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi came back from lunch and watched as humanity created the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction inside a pile of bricks and wood underneath a football field at the University of Chicago. Known to history as Chicago Pile-1, it was celebrated in silence with a single bottle of Chianti, for those who were there understood exactly what it meant for humankind, without any need for words.
Now, something new has occurred that, again, quietly changed the world forever. Like a whispered word in a foreign language, it was quiet in that you may have heard it, but its full meaning may not have been comprehended. However, it’s vital we understand this new language, and what it’s increasingly telling us, for the ramifications are set to alter everything we take for granted about the way our globalized economy functions, and the ways in which we as humans exist within it.
The language is a new class of machine learning known as deep learning, and the “whispered word” was a computer’s use of it to seemingly out of nowhere defeat three-time European Go champion Fan Hui, not once but five times in a row without defeat. Many who read this news, considered that as impressive, but in no way comparable to a match against Lee Se-dol instead, who many consider to be one of the world’s best living Go players, if not the best. Imagining such a grand duel of man versus machine, China’s top Go player predicted that Lee would not lose a single game, and Lee himself confidently expected to possibly lose one at the most.
What actually ended up happening when they faced off? Lee went on to lose all but one of their match’s five games. An AI named AlphaGo is now a better Go player than any human and has been granted the “divine” rank of 9 dan. In other words, its level of play borders on godlike. Go has officially fallen to machine, just as Jeopardy did before it to Watson, and chess before that to Deep Blue.
“AlphaGo’s historic victory is a clear signal that we’ve gone from linear to parabolic.”
So, what is Go? Very simply, think of Go as Super Ultra Mega Chess. This may still sound like a small accomplishment, another feather in the cap of machines as they continue to prove themselves superior in the fun games we play, but it is no small accomplishment, and what’s happening is no game.
AlphaGo’s historic victory is a clear signal that we’ve gone from linear to parabolic. Advances in technology are now so visibly exponential in nature that we can expect to see a lot more milestones being crossed long before we would otherwise expect. These exponential advances, most notably in forms of artificial intelligence limited to specific tasks, we are entirely unprepared for as long as we continue to insist upon employment as our primary source of income.
This may all sound like exaggeration, so let’s take a few decade steps back, and look at what computer technology has been actively doing to human employment so far: