At the Intersection of Machine Learning And Human Intuition. Google Brand is the Winner

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@KarthRajanKarthik Rajan

Courtesy Google’s AlphaGo Victory. Do you agree?


I thought I knew. Now, I am not so sure.

I always thought I would always celebrate an Artificial Intelligence victory as a triumph of the human mind. I felt that way when Deep Blue won against Garry Kasparov in 1997. I was young and earnest.

Recently, I watched the contest between the smartest player on planet earth, Lee Sedol, for the ancient game of “Go” and a computer algorithm from the stable of Google, AlphaGo. AlphaGo won the game 4–1. My left, logical brain rationalizes man vs. machine contest as a human victory irrespective of outcome. My right brain is not so sure.

When the machine won the first three games straight, the world at large (read news articles) started whispering the big I word (no, it is not an Apple product) that the computer has made forays into — Intuition.

Intuition is our (human) hack and we have not figured out how it works. We just know it works inside us. Newspapers have a way of hijacking us with their headlines.

Has intuition been mastered by a machine? Or is it just hot air in the media?

Here is my narrative in a story format. (I always dreamt of converting a complex topic that means something to humanity and humanize it into a simple, engaging story.)

The setting

Two players are seated across each other with the board game, “Go” staring in the middle. Lee Sedol has the Korean flag in front of him. The other player makes the moves that AlphaGo recommends. The flag in front is United Kingdom’s Union Jack. AlphaGo is Deepmind’s baby, a UK company acquired by the Google family.

This setting repeats itself for all the five games. The roller coaster of emotions and how it panned out is in the diagram below, inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s story narrative.

What did the computer actually do? (My goal: no Artificial intelligence jargon words)

A story about a student comes to mind. I heard this when I was young. This student always wanted to study at Wharton and get an MBA. So, he made a trip to Philadelphia, took a picture in front of Wharton and kept it in front of his computer from his high school days. When I first read about this story, what stuck me was his clear goal in his mind that was reinforced by a visual in front of him! He did not know how exactly, but he did it — he graduated from Wharton with an MBA.

This is exactly what this AlphaGo did — at least in my opinion. It was trained by games of the past and was primed like a horse with blinkers. This is something we have come to expect machine learning to do — image search in Google being a great example.

What was interesting about AlphaGo is that it has special blinkers that let the eye have a wider periphery to evaluate multiple track options (like levers for changing tracks for trains). AlphaGo has the mental stamina to visualize the likely outcome (like the student with the picture) for different tracks and assign odds. In the process, it imagines its own games and self learns from its own creations!

Being a better bean counter, AlphaGo won the first three games and the fifth. That makes the fourth game, the game that Lee Sedol won interesting.

Unlike Chess, it is not practically possible for the Alphago to simulate every conceivable path- apparently there are more alternatives than the atoms in the observable universe. So, it approximates the odds based on samplings of paths. Being the human genius [that] he is, Lee found one lone path that was hidden in an unlikely route.

After winning that game, he was given a standing ovation. The celebration after the game spoke about how the world felt and which side our hearts are leaning in to find solace.

Like many of us, deep in my heart, I was getting sentimental for a human win. My father used to say in half jest, “As you grow older, you get more sentimental as you have more to look back.”

What It Means To You And Me: Our Intuition And Google Branding.

All I can share with certainty what the games accomplished. In terms of branding — the company called Alphabet had the biggest (indirect) advertisement to draw the “algorithmic” geeks who give it the continued intellectual edge. Lest this small detail gets lost, among the folks in the audience was Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet and aptness of the computer program name AlphaGo and their sublime (and subliminal) marketing becomes apparent. The war on technical talent is on and Alphabet is the clear winner today.

Mankind vs. Machine may be been the apparent debate. I believe intuition is still in the hands of the humans with all our frailties. All the machines have done is to self learn for problems where the goals are clear and quantifiable.

For some of us, goals are at best a moving target. For many of us, life floats by like a wanderer on earth. For chosen few, they walk this earth pretending that they know all their goals ahead. Scenarios, the computers can chew on. Until then, intuition is the prerogative of the humans.

Talking about intuition and LinkedIn — your instinct tells you not to connect with a connection request and you still give them the benefit of the doubt. And within 10 minutes they send you a pitch for a million dollar scheme and their personal email and you lightly hit your forehead with your palm for not listening to your intuition.

That is what makes us human and interesting- just like the great Lee Sedol who fidgets in his seat when he is on the clock while the other side works with machine like precision. In those moments, I can relate to Lee Sedol.

And I remember the evocative words of legendary author and poet Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I will always remember how the games in Seoul made me feel and like many of you, I will go about my life after that — as a wanderer on earth with my own purpose. Goal is another story.

Interested in your thoughts in the comment section.

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Karthik Rajan
I enjoy writing at the intersection of analytics and human relationships.



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