Artificial Intelligence is Overturning Our Assumptions

Posted on 18th April 2017


In this post I explore a thoughtful article that ran recently in Medium. Author Jeremy Kahn explains that a computer beating the world’s top player of the Asian strategy game Go is a harbinger that a lot of received human wisdom is about to come into question.

Challenging Received Wisdom

With an ancient game like Go – invented some 2,500 years ago – there are naturally many assumptions and ‘rules of thumb’ about the best way to play the game. But AlphaGo, the software created by the artificial intelligence research firm DeepMind to take on the best Go players, challenges such received wisdom time and again. “One of the most interesting things about AlphaGo, the software DeepMind built, is how often it flagrantly violates these rules. For instance, it chooses to cede territory around the perimeter of the board in situations when humans, based on strategies developed over generations, do the opposite. This upending of received wisdom has, at least initially, left human players profoundly shaken.”

Kahn cites another game-related example to underline how artificial intelligence is forcing us to revisit long-held assumptions and best practices. “And it isn’t just Go. This is happening with other games where AI – powered by neural networks and self-teaching algorithms – is beating top humans. The poker pros who lost to Carnegie Mellon University’s AI, called Libratus, in No Limit Texas Hold ’Em in February, marveled at the software’s unconventional betting strategies.”

A practical example of AI’s power to challenge received wisdom and best practice was DeepMind’s success in reducing data center energy costs for its parent company Google. Google engineers were dumbfounded that DeepMind software could uncover such dramatic cost savings: “The rule of thumb was that the most energy efficient way to cool a building was to run as few systems as possible, maxing out each one before bringing additional units online. But the AI didn’t do this. Instead, it turned on almost all the cooling systems simultaneously, but ran them at lower power levels, balancing the heat load across almost all of them.”

At first glance these shattered assumptions may be discouraging: “This same pattern is very likely to be repeated in every field AI touches. That generations of human wisdom, earned by hard experience, may be about to be wiped out is a fairly depressing thought. It’s not enough that robots are going to take our jobs, they’re going to make us look like fools while doing it.”

But there is also cause for optimism and excitement: AI’s inclination to challenge our assumptions and received wisdom will throw open many doors to human innovation and creativity. As Kahn writes, “Instead of simply showing us the error of our ways, AI might also help guide humans to new heights of achievement.” That sounds pretty good to me.

Good luck, and until next time…