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A screen displays the match featuring Chinese Go grand master Ke Jie against Google DeepMind's AlphaGo artificial intelligence programme. The machine won the first of three matches after four and half hours, pulling off several surprise moves. sPhoto: EPA

NewAlphaGo wins first match of three over Chinese Go master with ability to surprise

The match, considered a benchmark in measuring the encroachment by artificial intelligence on human endeavours, is an important milestone for technology companies and China.


AlphaGo, the computer programme developed by Google’s DeepMind labs, has scored its first victory in a three-game match against the world’s top player of Go, extending the machine’s edge over humanity in a contest to redraw the boundary between human intelligence and the artificial variety.

Ke Jie, the 19-year-old Chinese prodigy who’s ranked at the game’s apex, conceded in a four-and-half-hour game in Wuzhen, after AlphaGo pulled several surprise moves.

“I was shocked,” Ke said in a post-match press conference in this waterfront town in Zhejiang province. “Many of the moves can never happen in human competition.”

The contest between the teenage wunderkind and the world’s smartest computer seeks to redraw the boundary where artificial intelligence and machine learning can surpass human endeavours, 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 tournament’s kickoff. “It is more like men using them as tools to discover new knowledge together.”

Go, also known as weiqi (圍棋), has been played in China since the Zhou dynasty of 1,046 to 256 BC. A two-person strategy game on a 19 X 19 grid board with black and white stones, weiqi is the most complex contest played by humans, with more possible moves than the total number of estimated atoms in the visible universe.

It’s been the benchmark for measuring the encroachment by artificial intelligence on human ingenuity for decades, ever 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.

Ke Jie during a weiqi tournament in December 2016. Photo: SIPA Asia via ZUMA Wire
Ke, who went professional at the age of 11,has attained the ninth dan, the game’s highest level. Still, the odds are stacked against him, as he had already lost to AlphaGo during an online match in January.

There was “only a slight chance” for Ke to prevail, said Zheng Hong, a retired 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 a milestone for technology companies like Google, Uber, Alibaba and Baidu, which are all making artificial intelligence their next frontier for innovation.

For China, the birth place of weiqi, the match is particularly symbolic. Wuzhen is the site of the World Internet Conference, showcase of the Chinese government’s version of a closed, censored internet.

The applications for artificial intelligence (AI) range from voice recognition in iPhone’s Siri to facial recognition in the online payment system operated by AliPay, the affiliate of Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post. The application of AI can help humans find solutions to problems they can’t even begin to consider, Hassabis said.

Ke Jie at the opening ceremony of the Future of Go summit ahead of a match between himself and Google DeepMind's artificial intelligence programme AlphaGo in Wuzhen. Photo: EPA

“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 Google’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 since antiquity.

From China, weiqi 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, an idyllic Zhejiang provincial town of 60,000 inhabitants, 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 what an interconnected, albeit censored, world looks like.

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.

A commentator in a media room positions pieces forming a replica of a 2015 game between South Korean grand master Lee Sedol and AlphaGo. The AI programme would go on to defeat Lee 4 games to 1.Photo: AFP

“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.”

After Tuesday’s match, Ke will play against AlphaGo on 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.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Machine trumps man as AlphaGo outguns prodigy