DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis inspires London schoolchildren

22 November 2017


John Saunders reports: Demis Hassabis, co-founder of the leading artificial intelligence company DeepMind, now part of Google’s Alpha Group, paid a visit to UCL Academy, a secondary school in Camden, London, on 8 November to talk to the academy students about Artificial Intelligence and give a simul with a difference in which the opponents could consult a computer engine during play.




Though now more famous for his pioneering work in the field of neuroscience-inspired AI, Demis Hassabis is also a chess player of some renown, having reached a rating of 2300 aged just 13 on FIDE’s January 1990 list at a time when the only player of his age group rated higher than him was Judit Polgar. He also has a connection with UCL Academy in that he studied for his doctorate in cognitive neuro-science at University College London, which sponsors the school.


Demis touched on the famous Kasparov-Deep Blue man versus machine encounters and how information from these legendary encounters had fed into his planning for a computer program to play Go. Reluctant though we die-hard chessers sometimes are to admit it, we have to acknowledge that this 3000-year-old game from China, though ostensibly simple in terms of the rules, is a quantum leap more complex to play than its 64-square rival. The Alpha Group at Google’s London HQ had no illusions in the task they were taking on. A Go-playing program couldn’t simply ape chess engines because it was impossible to build an evaluation function that would match the depth and complexity of the game – so AI was the only approach. The program would achieve its strength by playing games against itself, many thousands of times, and generate its own algorithms for winning, and go on doing so over time. The end result of their endeavour was named AlphaGo. The program’s achievement in defeating the supreme human Go player Lee Sedol in 2016, by four games to one, was a bigger surprise even than Deep Blue’s defeat of Kasparov.




It was intriguing to hear of the defeated Go champion’s positive reaction to his defeat. Far from being downhearted, Lee Sedol found his game had moved to a higher level: after the AlphaGo match he went on a three-month tournament winning streak. He was philosophical and upbeat: “I think this will bring a new paradigm to Go – I feel thankful and feel like I’ve found the reason I play Go.”


Demis Hassabis is a charismatic speaker and it was impressive to see how well he engaged with the academy students.



He clearly inspired his audience and was rewarded with a barrage of thoughtful questions from them at the end of his talk. As well as UCL, the audience included pupils from five nearby schools (Royal Free Hospital Children's School, Hampstead School, Regent High School, Acland Burghley School and William Ellis School & Haverstock Schools). So much interest was created in the subject of AI so that the question and answer session carried on into the room set aside for the simul and severely impacted on the time available to play the games!




Demis only had time to play ten or so moves on each board before he had to leave for his next appointment. Malcolm Pein summarised, thus: “After Demis left I took over six good positions he had achieved from the opening. But the children started to get the hang of Fritz... and the games became tougher and tougher.


I won three, lost one and was cruising in the other two. A 4-2 victory was in sight until I very diplomatically, and of course involuntarily, allowed the head teacher a mate in one!!” Yes, those students learnt fast.


Here’s the position where Malcolm (white) came unstuck... With an overwhelming position, Malcolm now played h6-h7, followed shortly by a gale of laughter having realised what he had just perpetrated.


(A sneakier player like me would have kept quiet.) Co-principal of UCL Academy headmaster, Robin Street, could be forgiven for the smile on his face as he replied ...Rh6 mate.


Demis Hassabis is grateful for the role chess has played in his life: “chess has had a remarkable impact on me, providing a fundamental and logical planning process to all areas of my life, whether in business or anything else... chess is an incredible training ground for the mind.”


The next chess fixture for Demis Hassabis is the Pro-Biz Cup, alongside Garry Kasparov, who will be making his first moves in London since retiring in 2005.



John Saunders, @London_Chess, press officer, London Chess Classic



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