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Google’s AlphaGo might have bested the world Go champ - but Chinese netizens say it’s not smart enough to win at mahjong

China’s online censorship regime becomes target of jokes and mockery as netizens discuss the AlphaGo computer’s victory

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2016, 9:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018, 3:43pm

First it was chess. Then it was weiqi, or Go. Now Chinese internet users are asking if artificial intelligence is up to the ultimate test: mahjong.

The challenge stems from a series of weiqi wins by AlphaGo, a computer program developed by Google.

But while some are genuinely wondering if the program can tackle one of China’s favourite pastimes, others are using it as a chance to mock China’s censorship of the internet.

AlphaGo has proved more than a match for some of the world’s best weiqi players, most recently besting South Korean master Lee Se-dol in three matches before Lee came through with a win.

Weiqi is a two-player game that is deceptively complex. Players take turns putting black and white stones on a board but there are hundreds of possible first moves and hundreds of possible responses.

Mahjong is usually played by four people who draw tiles from a 144-tile pool, discard or intercept others to form winning sets of tiles.

Compared with weiqi, mahjong has far fewer permutations but involves a degree of chance and other factors in favour of humans.

READ MORE: Game over? Historic milestone as computer trounces human champ at weiqi for the first time

While many have expressed amusement at AlphaGo’s victory, some believe the broad cross-section of Chinese mahjong players would be much harder to beat.

“Go is the most difficult game in mathematics, but mahjong is the most difficult one in human intelligence,” one mainland web user said on a Sina microblog.

“Can AlphaGo challenge Chinese people on playing mahjong? I am sure an ordinary Sichuan dama (older woman) can beat it easily.”

And there is some research to support the view. In an article titled “From scientific theory: why can’t AlphaGo take on the mahjong challenge?”, the author said one computer installed with AlphaGo had no chance of beating three human players in the same match. Even if there were two AlphaGo programs against two humans, man would still triumph over machine because one human player could take advantage of facial cues from the other.

“It was also be too expensive to use three AlphaGos to challenge one person,” he wrote.

The article also pointed out that residents in different parts of China had invented different ways of playing and mahjong had more variations than weiqi.

“To learn mahjong, AlphaGo also needs to be familiar with those dialects that people adopt when playing the game,” the author wrote.

READ MORE: Wu Qingyuan, the go-to master of weiqi

But mainland microbloggers have weighed in with an even bigger obstacle to an AlphaGo win in China.

“If AlphaGo come[s] to China, it must be failed (sic), because it cannot connect to the Google server,” one internet user posted on Sina Weibo.

Google and a list of other popular international websites have been blocked in China for years. Instead of Twitter, also blocked in China, many Chinese opt for Sina Weibo and other similar microblogging websites, where content is heavily censored.

One Sina Weibo user echoed the sentiment: “I don’t think the AI developers that have invented AlphaGo are the most capable. The most capable are the ones at Sina that developed AI programmes to automatically delete posts.”

But the final word should go to the internet user who had the ultimate answer to the mahjong question.

“The quickest way to stop AlphaGo from winning against us humans is to take its plug out of the socket”.