How Tetris explains the promise of the ultimate algorithm

How Tetris explains the promise of the ultimate algorithm

Pedro Domingos is a serious guy with big ambitions. He wrote his new book, The Master Algorithm, to drive interest in machine learning, which he believes could remake our lives for the better. But he also calls mastering Tetris, “one of the most useful things you could ever do.”

If you’re confused, you’re forgiven. After all, how important is a trivial game?

But hear Domingos out. He sees something totally different when he looks at Tetris.

For the University of Washington computer science professor, Tetris as an example of an NP-complete problem, a term computer scientists use. It’s a problem we have no solution for, but if we did, we could verify quickly that we had found it.

“If you can solve Tetris, you can solve thousands of the hardest and most important problems in science, technology, and management — all in one fell swoop. That’s because at heart they are all the same problem,” he writes.

While algorithms are increasingly common in our lives — they do everything from detect credit card fraud, to set prices online and order Facebook’s newsfeed, those algorithms are all narrowly focused. Domingos’s hunch, one shared by many, is that there is one learning algorithm that can derive all knowledge from data. The trick is uncovering it. One popular method is reverse engineering the human brain. Others try to simulate evolution on a computer because of the diverse and intelligent life that the process created in nature.

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