Tea Leaf Nation
AlphaGo and the Clash of Civilizations
When a computer beat a Go grandmaster, some in China saw the match as a battle between Western technology and Eastern culture.
The game known as “Go” is the crown jewel of Chinese culture. A board game of simple rules but complex strategy, it is said to have been invented by the mythical Chinese ruler Yao; archaeological evidence and ancient texts suggest that the game has been around for at least 2,500 years. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in his book On China, even suggested that the grand strategy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party was based on Go. Popular in East Asia, the game’s top players are concentrated in China, South Korea, and Japan.
But in early March, AlphaGo, a computer program developed by Google’s artificial intelligence research unit DeepMind, defeated a South Korean Go grandmaster. The historic match attracted wide attention in China, where AlphaGo’s victory has people marveling at the power of artificial intelligence and rethinking the nature of the game of Go – and leading some to see the match as a battle between Western technology and Eastern culture.
Go seems deceptively easy. It’s played on a board with 361 intersections, on which two players take turns placing smooth black and white stones, one color per player. The player who can surround the most territory wins. (The English name, Go, comes from the Japanese name for the game; it is called weiqi in Chinese, which means “surrounding chess.”) But the possibilities are almost infinite. When Deep Blue — the famous chess program developed by IBM — beat a human chess champion for the first time on Feb. 10, 1996, it simply exhausted all the possible scenarios. But the number of possibilities in the game of Go is estimated to be greater than the number of atoms in the visible universe, far beyond the complexity of chess, making it unrealistic for a computer program to calculate all the possibilities in a match against human players.
That’s what made the computer’s victory so remarkable. DeepMind, a London-based startup which Google bought for $400 million in 2014, developed AlphaGo and made headlines when the journal Nature featured it on its cover in January after the groundbreaking 5-0 series victory against three-time European champion Fan Hui last October. The makers of DeepMind decided to challenge Lee Sedol, South Korea’s 33-year-old 18-time world champion in March. Before the five-game showdown between AlphaGo and Lee, Go experts were optimistic that Lee would still prevail against AlphaGo. But Lee and the experts underestimated AlphaGo’s ability to learn by itself and improve constantly over time. AlphaGo made history with a resounding 4-1 victory over Lee. It was a milestone victory for artificial intelligence and a hot conversation topic on the Chinese Internet. Demis Hassabis, a developer of AlphaGo, posted on Twitter that over 100 million people followed the live coverage of the first game, and 60 million in China alone.
But in China’s professional Go circles, Lee’s loss to a computer program prompted soul-searching. A series of interviews with an online Go blog revealed that some professional players viewed the match as a contest between East and West. “I think Go is more representative of Eastern wisdom, while artificial intelligence is a manifestation of Western thought,” remarked Chen Lei, CEO of Beijing-based Wantong Technology, a start-up founded in 2014 to explore artificial intelligence applications for Go. “One characteristic of Eastern wisdom is its tendency towards the qualitative rather than the quantitative, whereas computers are purely quantitative. These two cannot replace each other.”
Others felt China hadn’t received due consideration in the match. Sun Yuan, a professional Go player and doctoral student in engineering at Shanghai Jiaotong University, blamed Google for choosing to hold the contest in South Korea rather than China. Sun believed this was a business decision. “[Google] doesn’t offer core services in China and has no suitable Google center to hold press conferences, so all it could do was choose South Korea.” (Google left China in 2010 amid increasingly strict online censorship laws there). “This made China lose out on a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate for the world its status as Go’s country of origin,” Sun concluded.
But for some netizens on microblogging platform Weibo, the match represented not a defeat of Eastern wisdom, but rather an example of China’s relative technological weakness. “Google and Baidu were founded in the same era and both started off as search engines,” wrote one user, referring to the Chinese search giant. “Google can develop a program that beats human beings and smart cars that drive by themselves, while Baidu is selling fake medicine in its forums, auctioning the rankings in its searches and implanting plug-ins in everyone’s computers!” Baidu, which operates primarily in China, must deal with the limitations and restrictions that forced Google out in 2010; some netizens pointed out how much it now lags behind Google, commenting that “Google developed artificial intelligence, while Baidu developed online take-out ordering.” Others expressed disappointment that Google, the creator of some of the world’s most advanced technologies, is still blocked in China. A popular joke went: “If Google’s AlphaGo comes to China and challenges a Chinese Go master, it will definitely lose, for it won’t be able to connect to its server.”
To others, though, like Go expert Chen Zuyuan, the East-West element of the match had been far overplayed. “China’s professional Go circle puts too much emphasis on the connection between Go and Eastern culture and believes that Western culture is incompatible with the game,” said Chen. “This view needs to be corrected.” Xu Ying, a world champion in women’s competitions, stated that artificial intelligence was a helpful addition to Go, rather than some kind of civilizational rivalry. “The development of artificial intelligence in Go can help people think about the essence of the game,” she said. “For human beings, the most important part of the game is the non-competitive part.” Zhou Junxun, the first Taiwanese player to win a world championship, agreed. “Go is a culture and an art. After computer programs defeat human beings, the professionals should take Go from the competitive level to a higher level [of art and culture].”
For Chinese Go fans longing for a chance for China to redeem itself, hope isn’t lost. After Lee’s defeat, 18-year-old Chinese Go champion named Ke Jie posted on Weibo, “Even if AlphaGo can defeat Lee Sedol, it cannot beat me.” Many in China had never heard of Ke – but it’s he, not Lee, who is currently considered the world’s best player. Although some professionals like Hua Xueming, head of the Chinese national Go team, believe that Ke’s level is similar to that of Lee’s and the contest all comes down to performance, the Wall Street Journal suggested that Ke, already a three-time world champion at the age of 18, might have been a better representative of top human performance than Lee. Indeed, Ke Jie is likely to be AlphaGo’s next opponent. In a postgame interview with the press, Lee commented on Ke: “He’s 14 years younger than me. That is an age to be full of pride.”
AlphaGo’s dominance over Lee has ushered in a role for Western technology in the game of Go, long thought to be the embodiment of Eastern culture. But Chang Hao, one of the top players in China a decade ago, believes that Go, at its core, belongs intrinsically in a more universal human realm. “The foundation of Go is still human beings. Human beings have emotions and warmth,” said Chang. “In this sense, Go is more than just winning or losing; it is a great game that shapes a person’s character.”