KE JIE, THE number one Go player in the world, spent much of the game playing with the hair on his head. Time and again, he pinched the short strands between his thumb and index fingers, twisting the hair around one and then the other. His opponent, AlphaGo, the machine built by researchers at Google’s DeepMind lab, merely played the game. And in the end, as seemed inevitable, it won.
With the win, AlphaGo claimed victory in its three-game match in with Ke Jie in Wuzhen, China, taking a 2-0 lead. The win confirmed that modern AI techniques have already exceeded the talents of even the best humans when playing the ancient game of Go—something that didn’t seem possible just a few years ago.
Last year, AlphaGo became the first machine to beat a leading Go professional when it topped the Korean grandmaster Lee Sedol. Considering the extreme complexity of Go—there are more potential positions in the game than atoms in the universe—the win was a turning point in the progress of artificial intelligence. Underpinned by technologies that are already changing everything from internet services to healthcare to robotics, AlphaGo is a harbinger of so many shifts to come.
This week’s match highlighted the powers of the machine, but for Google, the event didn’t necessarily live up to expectations. Google had anticipated a chance to raise its profile in China, where it hasn’t offered online services since 2010. And in the weeks prior, Google seemed to enjoy the cooperation of local authorities. But two days before the first game, according to two people involved in the event, Chinese state TV pulled out of the match. Then, about a half-hour into the game, broadcasts from other media went dark. Local news outlets did cover the event, but most did not mention Google, apparently under orders from local authorities.
In 2010, after Chinese hackers broke into Google’s internal systems and lifted information about Chinese human-rights activists from their Gmail accounts, the company moved its internet servers to Hong Kong, saying it would not obey Chinese internet policies. In response, the Chinese government banned the company’s services. Clearly, Google now wants back into this very large—and potentially lucrative—market, but this week shows that navigating Chinese politics and culture is enormously difficult for American companies.
In any event, AlphaGo won the first game against Ke Jie, taking hold of play rather early in the match. “It is like a god of a Go player,” the Chinese grandmaster said during the post-game press conference, through an interpreter. But for the machine, the second game was a slightly different prospect. Unlike in the first round, AlphaGo played the black stones, which means it played first, something it views as a small handicap. “It thinks there is a just a slight advantage to the player taking the white stones,” AlphaGo’s lead researcher, David Silver, said just before the game. And as match commentator Andrew Jackson pointed out, Ke Jie is known for playing well with white.
That said, AlphaGo typically overcomes that small handicap. After the match in Korea last year, the DeepMind team rebuilt the system, significantly improving the architecture, and in January, when it played several top players over the internet under the pseudonym “Master,” it won all 60 of its games.
The new AlphaGo tends to play what experts previously viewed as an unusual opening, a strategy called “3-3 point.” And indeed, it played the opening in today’s game. In this way, the contest became a mirror image of game one. Ke Jie led with a “3-3 point” there, mimicking AlphaGo’s new approach to this ancient game—though, for him, the gambit was not successful.
In the early stages of game two, however, Ke Jie seemed to hold his own. “Incredible,” DeepMind founder and CEO Demis Hassabis tweeted about an hour into the game. “According to #AlphaGo evaluations Ke Jie is playing perfectly at the moment.” Later, during the post-game press conference, Ke Jie said that he thought he had a chance of winning. “My heart was beating fast,” he said. But as the match continued, according to match commentators, he seemed to lose ground in the lower half of the board. And soon, he started twisting the hair on his head.
By the game’s third hour, the 19-year-old had used up about twice as much playing time as AlphaGo. He was on the verge of losing the lower half of the board. Early in the contest, Ke Jie had worked to create an enormously complicated game, but with a typically swift move as the four hour approached, AlphaGo made it simple again. “The fact that AlphaGo has simplified the game is a bad sign for the human player,” said match commentator Michael Redmond. Within 15 minutes, Ke Jie resigned.
The last game of the series is set for Saturday. But before then, on Friday, the machine will play two others: one against at a team of top human players, and one alongside human players. And frankly, that’s where the interest lies. Given AlphaGo’s dominance, there’s little mystery left when it goes head-to-head with the single grandmaster.
By Noah Sheloon