December 6, 2017
Jeon Heon-Kyun-Pool/Getty Images

Four hours is all it took for Google's DeepMind artificial intelligence program to learn everything there was to know about chess, The Telegraph reported Wednesday. DeepMind's AlphaZero program, which teaches itself from scratch, achieved "superhuman" knowledge of chess in less than the amount of time you'd spend, say, watching the extended version of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

Chess has long been used to test the ability of artificial intelligence because the game's rigid structure is ideal for programming a computer with rules, and then letting it run its own tests against those rules. AlphaZero started this experiment knowing only the basics of chess gameplay, but by playing thousands of games against itself, AlphaZero updated its neural network with information about the effectiveness of certain moves — over and over again, until it became the best chess player in the known universe.

"The games AlphaZero played ... are far beyond anything humans or chess computers have come up with," said David Kramaley, a chess education expert. In 1997, the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue beat world champion chess player Garry Kasparov by computing and evaluating positions that were programmed into the machine with the help of chess masters, but AlphaZero is different because it had to teach itself the positions to begin with.

DeepMind's founders hope AlphaZero can be used to solve pressing societal issues. In October, DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis said, "If [AlphaZero] can be applied to other structured problems, such as protein folding, reducing energy consumption, or searching for revolutionary new materials, the resulting breakthroughs have the potential to drive forward human understanding and positively impact all of our lives."

Read the entire report on AlphaZero's prowess in chess and other games here. Kelly O'Meara Morales