China’s Sputnik Moment

Here, I'm going to tell you about the game of Go. And how AI has changed even this ancient game – and what it means for the future of artificial intelligence.

The Chinese teenager with the square-rimmed glasses seemed an unlikely hero to make humanity’s last stand. Dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie, Ke Jie slumped in his seat, rubbing his temples and puzzling over the problem in front of him. Normally filled with a confidence that bordered on cockiness, the nineteen-year-old squirmed in his leather chair. Change the venue and he could be just another prep-school kid agonizing over an insurmountable geometry proof.

But on this May afternoon in 2017, Ke Jie was locked in an all-out struggle against one of the world’s most intelligent machines, AlphaGo, a powerhouse of artificial intelligence backed by arguably the world’s top technology company: Google. The battlefield was a nineteen-by- nineteen lined board populated by little black and white stones—the raw materials of the deceptively complex game of Go. During game play, two players alternate placing stones on the board, attempting to encircle the opponent’s stones. No human on Earth could do this better than Ke Jie, but today he was pitted against a Go player on a level that no one had ever seen before.

Believed to have been invented more than 2,500 years ago, Go’s history extends further into the past than any board game still played today. In ancient China, Go represented one of the four art forms any Chinese scholar was expected to master. The game was believed to imbue its players with a Zen-like intellectual refinement and wisdom. Where games like Western chess were crudely tactical, the game of Go is based on patient positioning and slow encirclement, which made it into an art form, a state of mind.

The depth of Go’s history is matched by the complexity of the game itself. The basic rules of gameplay can be laid out in just nine sentences, but the number of possible positions on a Go board exceeds the number of atoms in the known universe. The complexity of the decision tree had turned defeating the world champion of Go into a kind of Mount Everest for the artificial intelligence community—a problem whose sheer size had rebuffed every attempt to conquer it. The poetically inclined said it couldn’t be done because machines lacked the human element, an almost mystical feel for the game. The engineers simply thought the board offered too many possibilities for a computer to evaluate.

But on this day AlphaGo wasn’t just beating Ke Jie—it was systematically dismantling him. Over the course of three marathon matches of more than three hours each, Ke had thrown everything he had at the computer program. He tested it with different approaches: conservative, aggressive, defensive, and unpredictable. Nothing seemed to work. AlphaGo gave Ke no openings. Instead, it slowly tightened its vise around him.

In my next post, I will explore the different reactions to this match, depending on where it was viewed. And what that says about national (or government) attitudes toward AI. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you. Have you ever been in a situation where you've played against a computer – and won or lost? What were the circumstances? How did you feel? Thank you for sharing.

Posted by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee on Jul 05, 2018 in All Posts AI & China

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