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Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

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A game of Go. Photo: Baona / iStock

DeepMind's latest iteration of AlphaGo — the artificial intelligence that beat world champion Go player Lee Sedol in 2016 — can learn to play the ancient game without feedback from humans or data on their past plays, researchers report today in Nature. Instead, the new AlphaGo Zero started with just knowledge of the rules and learned from the success of a million random moves it made against itself.

The score: After three days of training, the AI beat the original AlphaGo 100 to 0 — and was also able to create new moves in the process. This demonstrates a decades-old idea called reinforcement learning, suggesting that "AIs based on reinforcement learning can perform much better than those that rely on human expertise," writes computer scientist Satinder Singh in his accompanying article.

What it means: If AI can utilize reinforcement learning, that could be important in cases where large amounts of human expertise isn't available. But, it isn't clear how much this strategy will generalize to other applications and problems, says the University of Washington's Pedro Domingos. Go, though more complex than chess, offers a problem with defined rules unlike a busy street with unpredictable pedestrians and ambiguous shadows that a robot-controlled car might operate in.

What's new: AlphaGo's initial iteration was trained on a database of human Go games whereas the newer AlphaGo Zero's artificial neural networks use the current state of the game as input. Through trial and error and feedback in the form of winning, the AI learned how to play.

It then used that same network to choose its next move whereas AlphaGo used a separate network. This reinforcement learning strategy, which was used extensively by AlphaGo as well, has its roots in psychology: the neural network learns from rewards like humans do.

The DeepMind researchers wrote: "the self-learned player performed much better overall, defeating the human-trained player within the first 24h of training. This suggests that AlphaGo Zero may be learning a strategy that is qualitatively different to human play."

How they did it: AlphaGo Zero uses less computing power than earlier versions but Google's immense computing power was still key. The sheer number of games the AI can play against itself is an advance, says Domingos, who is the author of a book called The Master Algorithm.

He points out though that the roughly 5 million training games of self-play it took for AlphaGo Zero to beat AlphaGo is "vastly more" than the number of games Sedol had played to become a champion.

Recent work suggests simpler forms of learning could achieve similar goals. A paper published earlier this year by OpenAI showed how a technique similar to hill-climbing — in which the AI basically starts with a solution then makes small tweaks to optimize it — can solve Atari games, albeit simpler than Go.

Go deeper

House passes $1.9 trillion COVID relief package

Photo: Screenshot via C-SPAN

The House approved President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief package on a 219-212 vote early Saturday morning, sending it to the Senate for a possible rewrite before it gets to Biden's desk.

The big picture: The vote was a critical first step for the package, which includes $1,400 cash payments for many Americans, a national vaccination program, ramped-up COVID testing and contact tracing, state and local funding and money to help schools reopen.

8 hours ago - Health

Biden says it's "not the time to relax" after touring vaccination site

President Biden speaking after visiting a FEMA Covid-19 vaccination facility in Houston on Feb. 26. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden said Friday that "it's not the time to relax" coronavirus mitigation efforts and warned that the number of cases and hospitalizations could rise again as new variants of the virus emerge.

Why it matters: Biden, who made the remarks after touring a vaccination site in Houston, echoed CDC director Rochelle Walensky, who said earlier on Friday that while the U.S. has seen a recent drop in cases and hospitalizations, "these declines follow the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic."

Updated 8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: Most COVID-19 survivors can weather risk of reinfection, study says — "Twindemic" averted as flu reports plummet amid coronavirus crisis
  2. Vaccine: FDA advisory panel endorses J&J COVID vaccine for emergency use — About 20% of U.S. adults have received first vaccine dose, White House says — New data reignites the debate over coronavirus vaccine strategy.
  3. Economy: What's really going on with the labor market.
  4. Local: All adult Minnesotans will likely be eligible for COVID-19 vaccine by summer — Another wealthy Florida community receives special access to COVID-19 vaccine.
  5. Sports: Poll weighs impact of athlete vaccination.

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