Space & Innovation

A.I. Slam Dunks Impossible Game of 'Go'

This computer uses general machine learning techniques to figure out for itself how to win at an ancient and complex game.

The Chinese board game known as Go is generally considered to be the oldest and most complex strategy board game on the planet. Played by 40 million people worldwide, the game is more mathematically complicated than chess by several orders of magnitude.

If you've ever played the game, you know the deal. I tried once and sprained a frontal lobe.

Putting The Art In Artificial Intelligence: Photos

Go is so enormously complex, in fact, that even the world's most powerful supercomputers have been unable to play the game above the amateur level. Until now.

As reported in this week's edition of the journal Nature, researchers at Google have developed an artificial intelligence program that can compete with professional players at the renowned strategy game. In fact, the program - called AlphaGo - recently defeated the reigning three-time European Go champion Fan Hui, five games to zero.

As when the supercomputer Deep Blue defeated chess champion Garry Kasparaov in 1997, the achievement may eventually be considered a watershed moment in the development of A.I. and supercomputers. What's more, the AlphaGo system essentially learned to master the game on its own.

A.I. Takes A Stroll Through Amsterdam

In a blog post accompanying the release of the Nature article, Google DeepMind researcher Demis Hassabis writes that the AlphaGo program uses neural network technology - systems designed to function like the human brain - to navigate the game's subtle dynamics.

"We are thrilled to have mastered Go and thus achieved one of the grand challenges of A.I.," Hassabis writes. "However, the most significant aspect of all this for us is that AlphaGo isn't just an ‘expert' system built with hand-crafted rules; instead it uses general machine learning techniques to figure out for itself how to win at Go."

The details really are fascinating: Hassabis and the design team initially trained the program using records of 30 million individual movies played by human experts. After that, they cut the A.I. loose to create its own strategies by playing thousands of games between its own neural networks 'Ex Machina': Science Vs. Fiction

"These neural networks take a description of the Go board as an input and process it through 12 different network layers containing millions of neuron-like connections," Hassabis writes.

Once AlphaGo got the hang of things, as it were, it posted a 99.8 percent winning percentage against other Go programs, going 499-1 in a 500-game test run. Up next: AlphaGo will take on world champion Lee Sedol - considered the top Go player in the world over the last decade - in a five-game match in Seoul, South Korea, in March.

Get your tickets now. You can read more at the AlphaGo project page, or check out Google's video below.

Whatever did children put on their gift lists before there were iPhones, video games, hoverboards and virtual reality goggles? If we go back 2 millions years, it looks like the most popular gift was a

toy axe made of stone

. But of course, that predates Christmas, Santa and list-making. Once you click through these slides, it will all come back to you. And the nice thing is that some of these toys, which came out decades ago, are still popular today.


Let's go back about a 100 years to 1900, when

Joshua Lionel Cowen

designed the first toy train, the

Electric Express

. It ran on a brass track and got its power from an electric motor that was originally used to run a fan. Although toy trains may not be top-of-the-list for most modern-day kids, they are still found under the tree, even as a part of the decor.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, children in schools used chalk and small chalkboards to take notes and practice assignments. It was a messy, dusty endeavor. In response, the chemical company Binney & Smith

developed a dustless chalk

for schoolrooms that became quite popular. Building on that popularity and their relationships with schools, the company moved to improve already available wax crayons to make them safe for children. Scientists eliminated toxins and added color.

Alice Binney

, wife of one of the partners, Edwin Binney, is credited with coming up with the name Crayola.


comes from the French word for "chalk," and


for "oleaginous" -- essentially, "oily chalk." In 1903, the company sold their first box of


, which came in eight colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, and black.

A popular item back in the day for any child dreaming of becoming an engineer was the

Erector Set

-- a box of metal beams, nuts and bolts that could be assembled into a variety of structures. Other parts including pulleys, wheels, gears and motors enhanced the construction experience. Kids of any age could build a structure, take it apart and build something entirely different. The toy, invented by Alfred Carlton Gilbert, hit stores around Christmastime in 1913 launching the A.C. Gilbert Company into the limelight.

Tinker toys were also a popular construction toy back in the early 20th century. They were invented in 1914 by Charles H. Pajeau, Robert Pettit and Gordon Tinker and, like an Erector Set, allowed kids to build, disassemble and rebuild structures. A box of Tinker Toys, which are still made today by Hasbro, comes with wooden spools and rods, wheels, caps, couplings, pulleys, blades and gears.

Yo-yos have been around for 2,500 years. But it was Pedro Flores, who was the first to mass produce toy yo-yos in the 1920s in a small factory located in California. Donald Duncan eventually bought the rights to the toy in 1929 and trademarked the name Yo-Yo.

Legos have been around for more than 80 years, but amazingly, they still rank very high on Christmas lists even today. Founded by Danish woodworker Ole Kirk Kristiansen in 1932, the Lego Group started off making wooden toys. In 1947, they acquired a plastic injection molding machine and began making modular toys, including a truck that could be taken apart and re-assembled. In 1949, the company began making blocks that could be locked together and taken apart. By 1953, the bricks were renamed

Lego Mursten

, or "Lego Bricks." The word Lego itself is an abbreviation for two Danish words:

leg godt,

which mean "play well."

This board game, originally designed by Elizabeth Magie started out as The Landloard's Game in 1906 and was intended to teach people about the economic consequences associated with Ricardo's Law of Economic rent. Based on that less-than-exciting description, you may not be surprised to learn that the game did not sell well. It was updated and renamed to Finance in 1932, but still didn't take the world by storm. It wasn't until domestic heater

salesman Charles Darrow came upon the game did it really take off. He tweaked it, renamed it to Monopoly and with the help of his son William and wife Ester, began selling it at department stores. Eventually, Parker Brothers bought the rights and the patent from Darrow and by 1936 had sold 20,000 copies. Darrow became the first game designer to become a millionaire.


Etch A Sketch

was invented serendipitously by electrician André Cassagnes, from Vitry-Sur-Seine, France. The idea came to him while he was installing a factory light switch plate. The plate had a translucent decal over the top and when Cassagnes wrote on it with a pencil, he noticed that the scribbling transferred to the other side. After experimenting with a bunch of different materials, he settled on a pointy stick as a writing utensil. He made the screen from glass and used aluminum power for the material underneath. He called it Telecran. In 1960, the invention made it to the United States and sold through

The Ohio Art Company

, who called it Etch A Sketch or


Etch A Sketch Screen.

It's hard to believe that an oven could be a toy, but lots of kids like to play house when they're young and having a working kitchen really expands the imagination. The

Easy-Bake Oven

was originally produced by Kenner Products and introduced in 1963. The main attraction was a 100-watt lightbulb that heated cake batter into a spongy cake. During the first year of production, 500,000 models were sold. The oven is still for sale today by Hasbro, but it resembles a microwave or even a toaster oven.

This simple electronic game was one of the first arcade sports games to achieve a mass market appeal. It was made by Atari and came out in a floor-standing model in 1972. The object is similar to tennis, in that two players, equipped with a digital paddle bounce a pixelated ball back and forth over a "net." The success of the game encouraged Atari to develop a home version, which went on sale over Christmastime in 1975. Today, Pong is considered a classic and creates -- for those of us who grew up in the 70s -- a great deal of nostalgia.