Wuzhen, China. The last two days have seen Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo Master continue its declaration of superiority by defeating Ke Jie (9 dan professional) for a second time and gaining victory in a hard-fought battle against a whole team of five Chinese professionals, all of them 9 dan and representing the very pinnacle of ability.
Can nobody defeat Dr Hassabis’ robot?
One feature of AlphaGo’s play stood out above all: it is weirdly comprehendable.
I have seen more than a few professional game records and, without commentary, the fighting at the very top level often comes across as a kind of black magic but AlphaGo’s moves seem natural and rhythmical and their meaning is often immediately apparent even when they’re placed on points that no human player would find.
The next most unbelievable observation is that the engine plays some of our human joseki.
Instead of inventing new ideas, AlphaGo is simply showing us how to better employ ideas that have studied for hundreds of years. This is amazing because it shows us that the research of us mere mortals has been astoundingly accurate. Our romantic heuristics with which we reason and argue are somehow correct – sub-optimal they might be but they are not entirely wrong.
How is it possible that such a simple game played with primitive material and a mere handful of rules can provide a space in which such simple sequences can have so many layers of meaning and possibility?
I wonder what the future holds for AlphaGo and the game of Go.
We have seen AlphaGo discredit a lot of conventional wisdom that is taught like a mantra from the early kyu ranks, in the schools of the Insei and in professional study sesssions alike. To many, this opening of the mind has been a liberating experience comparable to the revolution in opening-theory pioneered before World-War II by Go Seigen and Kitani Minoru: the Shinfuseki.
“You have sente; you can play anywhere you like!”
I would like to ask AlphaGo many questions. I lost a game, once, to a rival who played what is known as the Great Wall opening – a crazy thing with a wavy line of stones down the middle of the board. I scoffed; I played high in all four corners and ended up a few points short of his total. What would AlphaGo think of such unconventional opening positions?
How strong would AlphaGo proove to be if you mandated that it starts at tengen – the point at the very centre of the go board?
Would AlphaGo find Honinbo Shusaku’s “ear-reddening” move?
How would AlphaGo handle a thousand-year ko?
I think that the game of Go, played between humans, will survive this onslaught by artificial intelligences simply because human play is sub-optimal. AlphaGo has shone a light on our imperfection and, honestly, it has been a painful experience but precisely this imperfection will be what saves the game.
The fact that a human opponent will never play perfectly, however strong they may be, allows opportunities for creativity. The fact that artistry governs a human’s opening and early game more than hard numbers or utility-scores allows a chance for exploration, experimentation and poetry.
If there is one thing to fear it is a future in which human professionals rely on bots too heavily, learning to mimick them and refusing to consider sequences that have not been ‘legitimised’ by some algorithm’s play. This is not to be feared because it will change the nature of competition. It will not lower the level of play between top players. It will merely be boring and bland.
Tomorrow, Ke Jie is to play a final match against the machine and he has politely requested to take the white stones – a request that DeepMind graciously granted. (Lee Sedol did the same in 2016.)
I have no doubt that tomorrow’s game will be spectacular but, despite the fact that both Ke Jie and AlphaGo appear to believe that playing white is advantageous, I think the best our human champion can hope for is a spirited performance and an honest loss in good style.