For the first time ever, a computer Go program has defeated a professional Go player on even terms – an event that experts previously thought was at least a decade away.
This startling announcement comes from a paper [PDF] published in the science journal Nature, by members of Google DeepMind, on January 27, 2016.
The program, named AlphaGo, defeated Fan Hui 2p (three time European Go Champion) with a surprising 5-0 score! The games were played from 5 to 9 October, 2015, but the news was only revealed upon completion of the paper.
Fan Hui is a professional with the Chinese Go Association and has been living in France, where he teaches and promotes Go, since the early 2000s.
The holy grail of AI
Many people outside of the Go or computer science communities would have been surprised to see an obscure board game splashed across news headlines around the world today.
And they would have been equally surprised to learn that Google had invested in DeepMind’s artificial intelligence (AI) software, AlphaGo, in order to beat humans at an ancient Asian board game.
Since IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997, defeating top Go players has been something of a holy grail for AI researchers.
For a time, it was thought by many to be impossible due to the countless number of possible Go games, but for most Go players and AI researchers, the question was always when, not if.
Since then, many more human-AI matches have been held.
“AlphaGo seems to be stronger than Fan Hui, but we don’t know how much stronger yet… Other strong AIs generally play four stone handicap games against pros, so AlphaGo is clearly stronger than other programs.”
AlphaGo to face Lee Sedol next
Off the back of their recent success, the Alpha Go team has now challenged Lee Sedol 9p to a five game match.
According to the Korean Baduk Association, the match will take place from March 9 to 15, 2016, in Seoul, Korea.
Google DeepMind chose to challenge Lee Sedol because of his record as the best Go player in the world over the last decade.
The games will be even (no handicap), with $1 million USD in prize money for the winner.
Lee is quietly confident about his prospects in the DeepMind AlphaGo vs Lee Sedol match.
“I’m honored to play against an AI invented by Google. I regard this to be an important match in the history of Go, so I accept the challenge. I’m confident that I can win the match.”
Here’s a video produced by Nature about AlphaGo and the match with Lee Sedol:
Most Korean professionals favor Lee
Most members of the professional Go community in Korea were also backing Lee:
“Lee Sedol’s never played against a strong AI, so the computer might be able to win a game or two, but it won’t defeat Lee.”
– Yang Jaeho 9p, Secretary General, Korean Baduk Association
“I’m very interested in this match. I’d heard that computer Go was around four stones behind pros, but if an AI has defeated the top European player, that would indicate a big improvement. I think most pros will be interested in following this match, but I don’t doubt that Lee will win.”
– Choi Cheolhan 9p
“It will be an interesting match, but I think it will be impossible to defeat Lee Sedol this time.”
– Choi Myeonghun 9p, coach of the Korean National Baduk Team
But Choi Moonyong 6p, who in addition to being a pro has also pursued a career in IT, wasn’t so sure:
“The match will be interesting, and AlphaGo might have a chance to win. Or at least, they are on track to defeat the strongest human player in a few years.”
He is also worried about the developers of other Go AIs, because AlphaGo seems so much stronger than other contemporary computer Go programs.
Why do this?
You may be wondering why Google is willing to invest so many resources into an ancient board game.
The answer is that DeepMind sees Go as a stepping stone on the way to a more general purpose AI which is able adapt to different problems the way a human does.
Part of AlphaGo is actually based on such a general learning algorithm, which has already mastered classic arcade games and has future applications in fields like medical imaging and machine translation.
Demis Hassabis explains it best in a speech he gave to the Royal Society in London (the videos of the AI playing arcade games are great fun):
More to come soon
This is an exciting development for Go players and we’ll be back with game commentaries and more news about the match soon.
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Fan Hui vs AlphaGo – Game 1
AlphaGo vs Fan Hui – Game 2
Fan Hui vs AlphaGo – Game 3
AlphaGo vs Fan Hui – Game 4
Fan Hui vs AlphaGo – Game 5