In 1997 the world chess champion Garry Kasparov lost a six-game match to IBM’s Deep Blue. The Russian had seen off Deep Blue in 1996 but 15 months later he was defeated by the same opponent because IBM had doubled the super computer’s calculating power.
Kasparov described one particularly devastating move from Deep Blue as ‘the Hand of God’ (a term made infamous by Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup, albeit for an act that involved cheating). Generally speaking he was unimpressed by the outcome, feeling that Deep Blue’s chess-playing prowess was based on its brute computational force and software algorithms, rather than raw intelligence.
There was no such controversy (or, for some observers, excuses) from the human player this time, as Google’s latest super computer AlphaGo comfortably saw off Go grandmaster Lee Se-dol this week.
Known as weiqi in Chinese, Go is a board game that originated in China at least 2,500 years ago. A Go board and its rules are incredibly simple. Played by two players who alternately place black or white stones on a 19 x 19 grid, the objective is to surround as much territory as possible. However, the game is devilishly complex and the number of possible outcomes is extremely large: 2 followed by 170 zeros, or a figure higher than the number of atoms in the universe (apparently).
That means even a computer with Deep Blue’s calculating speed wouldn’t be enough to ensure victory: it lacks the computational power to assess all possible moves – instead it must rely on something akin to human intuition. Thus defeating a professional Go player has been seen as one of the holy grails of artificial intelligence (AI) by researchers.
The technological breakthrough looks to have been achieved by DeepMind, a Google AI lab in the heart of London. AlphaGo is named after a famous verse uttered by God in the Bible: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending.” The computer system has shown almighty potential as a Go player. In October last year it had already beaten European champion Fan Hui in straight sets in a best-of-five match.
AlphaGo then took on South Korea’s Lee Se-dol. The 33 year-old may not be the best player (more on why later) but he has been the most recognised of the last decade, with 18 world titles and over 1,000 official wins, the Korea Times reports. Before stepping up to defend humanity, Lee had predicted he would defeat AlphaGo 5-0 or 4-1.
The actual outcome? The 33 year-old was thrashed 4-1 by Google’s AI machine.
Lee was shocked but happy to have won one game. “This win cannot be more joyful because it came after three consecutive defeats,” he said after his solitary victory in game three of the series. “It is the single priceless win that I will not exchange for anything.”
This human-versus-machine battle has kept the media interested for weeks. In China the attention has been greater still. It being the game’s homeland, it is not surprising there is a huge Go fan base in the country. Lee himself has more than 50 million followers on weibo.
“Has the Terminator moment finally arrived?” one of Lee’s weibo fans asked. Another answered: “Is Google going to be Skynet?”, i.e. the AI computer system in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film that turned on humanity and sought to destroy it.
Not everyone is so concerned about the threat posed by computers to humans. “Despite the sweeping victory, it is too early to say that AI has surpassed humans in Go because Lee fought AlphaGo with little knowledge about the computer program, including its playing style and its strategy,” a Go expert tells Xinhua. “Only after analysing AlphaGo’s strategy sufficiently and holding a match once again between the AI and human Go players, can it be determined whether machines may surpass humans in the board game,” the commentator said.
Moreover, China also boasts a Go prodigy, whom local netizens have dubbed “the last hope of humanity”.
Step up Ke Jie, an 18 year-old who has already acquired grandmaster status (Go’s highest level: ninth dan, the top professional rank). Ke turned pro in 2008, and as Xinhua comments “His performance wasn’t especially notable until 2013, but somehow in 2014 he became very strong and powerful.”
Chinese media has been referring to Ke as “the world’s number one Go player” – because he enjoys a head-to-head record of eight wins and two losses against South Korea’s Lee.
No wonder Ke appears eager to challenge AlphaGo himself. “Even if AlphaGo can defeat Lee Se-dol, it can’t beat me,” Ke Jie wrote defiantly on his weibo account after Lee went 2-0 down.
Since then – i.e. after the overwhelming AlphaGo victory – he has been managing expectations a bit more carefully. “For me, I’m not interested in playing against an easy opponent… I want to see actually how it is to play against AlphaGo,” Ke said. “I do not feel the same certainty of victory as when I play a human player, but I still believe I have the advantage against it. It’s 60% in favour of me.”
Google’s DeepMind has said it welcomes a rematch with humanity and Ke Jie could challenge AlphaGo in the future. The duel will be one to watch. If Ke loses it may prove to be a “hasta la vista, baby” moment for humanity…
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