Thursday, January 28, 2016

go-playing AI

Back when I was a student I was a fairly enthusiastic Go player, and always liked the fact that it seemed to be resistant to efforts to make a strong go-playing computer program. (At any rate, it resisted my own effort to write a strong Go-playing program.) Having followed the progress of go-playing programs, of course I was interested in the success of the Google DeepMind program (articles in the BBC and Guardian) against Fan Hui, Europe’s top Go player. As noted in Neil Lawrence’s Guardian article, the DeepMind program doesn’t achieve the data efficiency of human players, so there is still work to do. And for those of us who like to imagine that Go is really supposed to be hard to program, there is a glimmer of hope: Previous Go-playing programs perform better against a human opponent during the first few games, and then the human opponent learns their weaknesses. Could Fan Hui eventually start winning, with a bit more practice?

Friday, January 01, 2016

problems with blogs

I just read this article in the Guardian: Iran’s blogfather: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are killing the web. Iran’s “blogfather” Hossein Derakhshan describes an Internet Rip-van-winkle experience of being released from prison after about 7 years: he went to prison in 2008 during the heyday of blogs, and emerged to find a world of Facebook, Instagram, and apps. He seems disappointed by the transformation, for reasons I sympathise with. Then again, Mr. Derakhshan may end up learning to love modern social media.

I remember blogs. One difference they had from Facebook and other social media was they felt like a tool rather than a toy, something you can hurt yourself on. In the worst case, they get you murdered or imprisoned, and even in western democracies they could get you into trouble. On the other hand, the way Facebook works is that if you write anything remotely controversial, it won’t attract censure or ridicule, but will just be ignored completely; probably the system tactfully fails to show your contribution to anyone, or makes a potential reader scroll through 20 pages of photos of cats/children/cookery before finding it. The other big problem with blogs — the main reason why modern social media killed them off — is the cognitive burden they placed on both reader and writer. The blogger had to exercise creativity and effort in order to verbally articulate his subjective view of (some aspect of) the world; a lot of tedious word-smithing went into the task of presenting a line of thought for the reader. You had to have the mentality of one of those guys who spend all their time tinkering with some obsolete car, instead of replacing it with a new model that’s blissfully free of any user-serviceable parts. It’s even worse for the reader, who is lumbered with the task of figuring out the writer’s emotional state, and whether he (the writer) really means what writes, or if he’s joking. Contrast that with modern social media, where you just shoot off a photo and upload it, with minimal comment attached. For the coming year, I look forward to a sighting of Mr. Derakhshan’s cat.