Artificial Intelligence


Will China’s Go master get the beta of AlphaGo?

Ke Jie, the world’s top Go master, conceded the first game of three against AlphaGo in Wuzhen.

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 11:28am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 3:03pm

A crucial boundary between human intelligence and the artificial variety may be redrawn this week in the waterfront town of Wuzhen, where humanity’s oldest and most complex game will be played out between a teenager and a three-year-old computer.

Humanity’s mission falls on the shoulders of 19-year-old Ke Jie, the world’s top player of Go, also known as weiqi (圍棋), while the computer will be Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo, arguably the smartest of its kind.

At stake is the boundary where artificial intelligence and machine learning can surpass human endeavour, especially in strategies, plotting and the element of surprise.

“Most people view this as man versus machine, while I disagree,” said DeepMind’s founder and CEO Demis Hassabis at the kickoff of the tournament in Wuzhen. “It is more like men using them as tools to discover new knowledge together.”

A two-person strategy game on a 19 X 19 grid board with black and white stones, weiqi is the most complex competition played by humans, with more possible moves and permutations than the total number of estimated atoms in the visible universe.

The game has been the benchmark for measuring the encroachment by artificial intelligence on human ingenuity for decades, even since IBM’s DeepBlue defeated the chess master Gary Kasparov in 1997.

Unlike previous computing attempts, AlphaGo uses two different neural network “brains” that cooperate to choose its moves. In 2016, AlphaGo dispatched South Korean grand master Lee Sedol, the then reigning world champion, in a 4-1 match.

The odds are stacked against Ke, who had already been vanquished by AlphaGo during an online match in January. He conceded after four and half hours of a gruelling match today, the first match of three.

There was “only a slight chance” for Ke to prevail, said Zheng Hong, a ninth-dan master, at the match. “Artificial intelligence can keep improving on itself by playing millions of games against itself,” Zheng said. “It will not be the end of the world if AlphaGo wins. No man can outrun a car, but it still means a lot to get an Olympic medal as the fastest running human.”

The match is an important marker for technology companies like Google, Uber Technologies, Alibaba Group and China’s dominant search engine operator Baidu Inc, which are all making artificial intelligence (AI) their next frontier for innovation.

The applications for AI range from voice recognition in iPhone’s Siri to facial recognition in AliPay’s online payment system to Tesla Motor’s autonomous driving. The application of AI can help humans find solutions to problems they can’t even begin to consider, Hassabis said.

“By collaborating with scientists, we believe AI will help create new sources of ideas to solve real-world problems,” he said, adding the technology behind AlphaGo has already helped to reduce the energy used in Googe’s data centre by 40 per cent.

A match in China is ripe with symbolisms, where the Chinese have considered mastery of the game one of the four essential marks of the aristocratic and scholarly classes.

Weiqi was recorded to have been first played some time before the Zhou dynasty of 1,046 to 256 BC. It later spread to the Korean peninsula and Japan, where it’s also widely played and has been formalised since the 15th century as the modern version known as Go.

Wuzhen, a town of 60,000 inhabitants in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, is where China has been holding the World Internet Conference since 2014, from which the government parlays a string of statistics to vindicate its version of the closed and censored internet.

To be sure, Chinese government censors are already sanitising and managing the expectations of the home audience.

Live broadcast of the match, originally scheduled on state broadcaster CCTV5, got cancelled. The game can’t be found on many of the most-watched streaming services in China, such as Tencent Video and The only official live stream is available on Youtube, which is banned in China.

Chinese media organisations have also been instructed to play down any mention of “Google” in DeepMind, as the American search engine and its related services are banned in China.

Still, DeepMind is putting on a good show, organising a five-day weiqi festival in Wuzhen, where players can hold experimental matches against artificial intelligence, or form teams against a single machine player.

“AlphaGo’s successes hint at the possibility for general AI to be applied to a wide range of tasks and areas, to perhaps find solutions to problems that we as human experts may not have considered,” Hassabis said.

The rise of technology may eventually destroy the human race, warned the British physicist Stephen Hawking.

“There is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer,” Hawking said, adding that AI will be able to redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and could be superseded by AI.”

Ke, a child prodigy who turned professional at the age of 11, has attained the ninth dan, the highest ranking in the weiqi world. He plays against AlphaGo on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, each game lasting seven hours.

While playing down expectations of the outcome, he stressed that humanity’s trumph over the machine is in the game’s intangible magic, instead of the bits and bytes.

AlphaGo “is after all a cold machine, and I cannot see its passion and its enthusiasm” for the game, he said. “I will use all my passion to have the final fight against it. No matter how strong my opponent is, I will not retreat.”