AlphaGo's battle with Lee Se-dol is something I'll never forget


Reporting from South Korea on AlphaGo’s matches against Go genius Lee Se-dol over the past week and a half has been intense and fascinating. I’ve written about the results of each game, how Google subsidiary DeepMind achieved them, what they might mean for the future, and more. I expected all this to be engrossing, sure. But what I didn’t bargain for was the surreal, often emotional experience it all turned out to be.

Afternoon after afternoon, I found myself in a glitzy sixth-floor ballroom in Seoul’s new Four Seasons hotel that had been repurposed as a press room. There was a lot of coffee. Korean journalists took a bunch of pictures of me, one of which made it into the country’s biggest newspaper. As can be the case with some Asian nations, news of foreign interest can be newsworthy in its own right.

So as not to break Lee Se-dol’s concentration, no-one was allowed in the room with him as the games played out. That’s a shame, because the setup inside was Seventh Seal-level dramatic. Instead, the press and members of DeepMind’s team gathered in front of a projector screen to watch Lee consider his moves, make them, and wait for the response. This came from DeepMind’s Aja Huang, sitting opposite Lee and waiting for AlphaGo to update a virtual Go board on a large computer monitor with its decision. Like a puppet, Huang played each move without emotion or reaction; Lee, meanwhile, would sometimes sit with his mouth agape at the AI’s audacity in the early games, not quite believing what he was seeing. If Huang ever felt apologetic, he didn’t show it.

alphago Sam Byford

To the left of the projector screen sat the two official English-language commentators, American Go Association communications VP Chris Garlock and 9th-dan pro Michael Redmond, the only Westerner ever to attain that status. Garlock played the bumbling layman to Redmond’s charismatic expert; as the games went on, I found myself entertained by the deadpan sass Redmond lent to his patient explanations of absurdly complex matters.

Because of the slow, methodical nature in which games of Go play out, the pair’s commentary was less play-by-play than prediction. Redmond would do his best to explain or attempt to understand AlphaGo’s sometimes inscrutable strategies, often anthropomorphizing the computer program as if it were actually, not artificially, intelligent. "AlphaGo is saying, come at me." he’d say at one point. "You know, I’m not actually sure what AlphaGo is trying to do here," he’d say ten minutes later.

Redmond can hardly be blamed, considering the events that were happening before him. As someone who writes about technology, it was difficult not to get at least a little excited by the dubious prospect of AlphaGo winning a game or two, so the AI’s victory on the first day was good news — I’d come all the way to Korea and seen history made, rather than status quo maintained. But after day two, AlphaGo’s dominance took on a darker tone.

I don’t mean the memes that Skynet is upon us or that the machines are taking over — I mean the shockwaves that AlphaGo’s first three victories sent through the Go-playing world. I’ve spent a lot of time throughout this series with people who’ve made Go their life’s work; it was a deeply moving experience to sit among them and hear their stunned gasps as a computer subverted everything they thought they knew about their passion. To watch Lee Se-dol struggle for words and apologize in the post-game press conferences compounded the sense of melancholy.

alphago-go-google-deepmind-challenge-match-"Sam Byford"-01 Sam Byford

I don’t know a ton about 9th dan-level Go strategy, but I do know a fair bit about sports, and Lee Se-dol’s poise and dignity throughout the series were worthy of any champion. He’d often been described as the Roger Federer of Go ahead of this match, and that turned out to fit well — his fighting spirit and mercurial flashes of genius against a seemingly unstoppable opponent had shades of Federer’s epic rivalry with Rafael Nadal, which ultimately saw the cerebral Swiss legend surpassed by his powerful, younger adversary. Lee Se-dol has had an experience that almost no one else can relate to, and that he would never have imagined coming — the slow, agonizing realization that the talent that brought him fame and fortune could be bettered by a sequence of ones and zeroes.

The press room burst into applause when Lee secured his single victory

By the third game, which saw AlphaGo win comfortably and wrap up victory for the overall series, the local press corps was firmly in Lee’s camp. The press room burst into applause at the end of game four, when Lee secured his single victory by forcing AlphaGo to resign, and he later entered the room for the press conference to chants of "LEE SE-DOL! LEE SE-DOL!" Journalistic balance went out the window as Lee struck back with a victory for the nation of South Korea and humanity in general. And it was hard not to feel happy for him when he beamed with relief and humility in front of an adoring audience.

Others were less relieved. Some people I spoke with who are closely associated with the game in Korea expressed privately that they worried for the pastime’s future now that a certain element of its mystique had been shattered. Some hoped that they could get their hands on a future version of AlphaGo, so as to raise the ultimate level of human play. It’s too early to tell what this will mean for Go in this country, but the game is unlikely ever to be quite the same again.

lee sedol demis hassabis Google

That may not be for the worst, though. I can’t imagine better PR for the game than a high-profile tournament presenting it as a puzzle for some of the smartest people in technology to crack; the fact that they ultimately did manage to crack it may well pale next to the publicity of the match itself. I’ve gained a tremendous amount of respect for the game of Go the more I’ve learned about it, and simply knowing how hard it was for AlphaGo lends it a huge degree of credibility — particularly in the West, where it’s barely played, but also here in Korea, where it’s received far more attention than usual. And in Lee Se-dol, Go now has a world-famous star who dared to take on the unknown.

"We could not have asked for a more wonderful or generous gift," said commentator Chris Garlock today as the final event came to a close. "Thank you for launching what I’m sure is going to be a new era in the most ancient of games."

I hope he’s right. Because for all the talk of machine learning and artificial intelligence that AlphaGo has provoked, the thread woven between everything I’ve seen in the past week — the dedication of the Go community, the vision of Demis Hassabis, the ingenuity of DeepMind, the talent of Lee Se-dol — is that Go has the power to bring people together in a way that is truly human.