Internet & Tech

No go

Google’s AlphaGo wins big


It wasn’t a great week for Chinese Go champ Ke Jie who lost 3-0

“Last year, it was still quite humanlike when it played,” Ke Jie, the world’s number one (human) Go player said of his opponent, the Google-built AlphaGo. “But this year, it became like a god of Go,” the 19 year-old remarked after losing to the artificial intelligence-powered machine in three straight matches.

When AlphaGo claimed its first scalp last year, defeating South Korean champion Lee Se-dol, Ke boldly proclaimed that the machine could never beat him (see WiC317). But by January of this year, the Chinese No.1 had already been defeated in a series of online games by AlphaGo, which was playing under the pseudonym “Master”.

To teach itself the skillset required to master Go – a game considered 300 times more complex than chess – AlphaGo has played hundreds of thousands of games against itself. Go players are desperate for Google to release the data on all of these matches for study, but Google has only agreed to reveal 50 of the games.

Perhaps even more disappointing for the legions of Go fans in China was that they were not even able to see last week’s battle unfold. The match was broadcast live on YouTube, which is blocked in China, as are most other units of Google.

The blackout went beyond YouTube. Domestic media was issued with a notice forbidding any live coverage of the playoff. “Again, we stress: this match may not be broadcast live in any form and without exception, including text commentary, photography, video streams, self-media accounts and so on. No website (including sports and technology channels) or desktop or mobile apps may issue news alerts or push notifications about the course or result of the match,” the purportedly leaked directive from the media regulator read.

The South China Morning Post reports that CCTV5, the state-broadcaster’s sport channel, was initially due to air the event but the scheduling was eventually cancelled. Meanwhile, streaming service Bilibili cunningly side-stepped the ban by broadcasting players mirroring the match on a separate game board.

China’s reluctance to showcase the contest contrasts with its cooperation in arranging the match. The three-game series was played out at the Future of Go Summit, a five-day event hosted in Wuzhen. During the summit, AlphaGo took on other challenges, such as Team Go – where a team of five players competed against it in a single match.

Beating a Chinese champion in his native country adds a certain weight to AlphaGo’s victory, as the game Go is said to have originated in China over 2,000 years ago. Choosing Wuzhen as the duelling ground is even more intriguing, as it is the location for China’s annual World Internet Conference, which touts the virtues of the country’s “walled off” approach to the worldwide web.

There is a suggestion that the authorities banned coverage of the event to avoid losing face. This seemed like a touchy subject when Lee Se-dol was beaten last year, as the government promptly increased funding for AI research, and the China Daily touted that a new Chinese invention would soon render AlphaGo obsolete (see WiC322).

Clay Sharky, professor at New York University Shanghai told the New York Times: “Anything that demonstrates that something special about China has turned out to be just another AI problem that Google is better at solving than any other company is additionally problematic because it threatens the specialness of the [Chinese] culture.”

Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal pointed out that though AlphaGo triumphed, Google didn’t benefit much as its goal of generating publicity in China had largely failed.

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