AFTER defeat comes resolve. AlphaGo, the artificial intelligence that has mastered one of our oldest and most complex games – Go – is the toast of Silicon Valley. But in South Korea, where Go is considered a form of expression akin to martial arts, the mood is different. Here, the game pulls in television contracts and corporate sponsors. Scholars study it full time in academies. Now, after 2500 years of tradition in the region, South Korea’s top player has been bested by a cyborg, its culture shaken by technology.
AI eviscerate Korean grandmaster Lee Sedol put the nation into shock, especially after the national hero confidently predicted that he would sweep AlphaGo aside. The actual result laid bare the power of AI.
“Last night was very gloomy,” said Jeong Ahram, lead Go correspondent for the Joongang Ilbo, one of South Korea’s biggest daily newspapers, speaking the morning after Lee’s. “Many people drank alcohol.”
already has deep roots all over the world. Films like The Terminator influenced it, and people like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have made public warnings of AI’s future power. But AlphaGo’s schooling of Lee carries extra bite where Go holds a central place in the cultural legacy.
“Koreans are afraid that AI will destroy human history and human culture,” said Jeong. “It’s an emotional thing.”
It is perhaps the perceived beauty of AlphaGo’s moves, that it beat Lee not mechanically, but wonderfully, that has ruffled the most feathers. “AlphaGo actually does have an intuition,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin told New Scientist hours after his firm’s series-clinching third victory, which he’d flown in to witness. “It makes beautiful moves. It even creates more beautiful moves than most of us could think of.”
A machine’s hand
Google DeepMind’s Aja Huang has acted as AlphaGo’s avatar in the five games against Lee Sedol
What does it feel like to be the physical avatar for an AI?
I feel very serious. I don’t want to make mistakes, because it’s the team’s hard work. Also, I try very hard to respect Lee Sedol. He’s a master.
You and Lee bowed towards each other before the first match, even though you’re not AlphaGo…
It’s a formal game, and we show respect for each other. I bow on behalf of AlphaGo.
Do AlphaGo’s moves surprise you?
Oh yeah, of course. What?! Play here? Especially that shoulder hit on move 37 in Game 2. It showed up on the screen, and I was like, woah!
Does the way you place stones vary?
If AlphaGo is confident, I will play confidently. And on some moves that I also think are very good moves, I will play slightly heavier. Like, good move!
How does it seem for Lee?
I think it’s a new experience to him. It’s different from playing a human. The computer is cold. There is no emotion. So I think it probably makes him not so comfortable.
Do you sympathise with him?
I’m always on AlphaGo’s side, but I do have sympathy. I can feel his pressure. He predicted he could crush AlphaGo 5-0, but it’s so different from what he expected. But I respect him as a master.
This ability to makehas left many shaken. “This is a tremendous incident in the history of human evolution – that a machine can surpass the intuition, creativity and communication, which has previously been considered to be the territory of human beings,” Jang Dae-Ik, a science philosopher at Seoul National University, told The Korea Herald.
“Before, we didn’t think that artificial intelligence had creativity,” said Jeong. “Now, we know it has creativity – and more brains, and it’s smarter.”
As Lee’s losses stacked up, I kept getting worried messages from my Korean friends. “I thought it might be fun to watch, but now it’s getting really scary,” one of them said. Another told me: “Thinking that these AIs are only accessible to a few groups and people – it is scary.”
Headlines stacked up in the South Korean press too: “The ‘Horrifying Evolution’ of Artificial Intelligence,” and “AlphaGo’s Victory… Spreading Artificial Intelligence ‘Phobia’.”
Some are upbeat that the impact of Lee’s loss will spark a revolution in education and learning in South Korea. “We’re very weak at AI,” says Lee Seok-bong, a journalist for South Korean science website HelloDD.com. “Up to this point, Korean people didn’t know much about AI. But because of this match, every Korean knows about it now.”
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