J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, September 25, 2017

AlphaGo: Artificial Intelligence’s Grudge Match with Humanity

Forget Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The stakes were much higher in the grudge match between DeepMind’s Go-playing artificial intelligence and Go master Lee Seedol. You can probably blame science fiction publishers for that. We’ve rarely published novels that feature a thinking program saving the day. Scientists can envision a world where A.I.’s help clean the dishes, but the Singularity remains a pretty scary proposition, so it was more than just professional Go players who were rooting for Lee. The epic five-game match is documented move-by-move in Greg Kohs’ AlphaGo (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There are so many potential variations in Go, it is considered more of an artform than a mere board game. It represents a far more complex programming challenge than chess. The AlphaGo program would also be far more legitimate measure of the state of the technology than the A.I. that defeated Kasparov. That program had the benefit of the experience of several chess masters, who helped teach it. AlphaGo would have to learn the game all on its own.

It learned pretty quickly, easily dispatching Chinese-born European Go champion Fan Hui in straight sets. It was a tough loss, especially his treatment in the Go press, but it put Fan in a unique position to understand the significance of the project. He subsequently signed on as a technical advisor to the program. However, Lee Sidol would be a different matter. Recognized as one of the most brilliant and unconventional players ever, everyone assumed he would cruise to victory. However, the real suspense will come from Lee’s valiant effort to scratch out a split.

Kohs clearly had unfettered access to the DeepMind team throughout its matches with Fan and Lee. While he did not have the same entrée to Team Lee, the Korean world champion still becomes the film’s genuinely heroic figure. We understand in no uncertain terms the pressure he endures as he carries the hopes of his country, the Go playing community, and basically the entire human race. The film also benefits greatly from Fan’s insider insights from serving as a player, coach, and judge in the AlphaGo story.

Kohs captures a lot of humanity in a film about artificial intelligence. The doc also might help alleviate some of our worst HAL-9000-esque fears regarding A.I. Yet, in moments of candor, even committed members of the DeepMind team admit a part of them was rooting for Lee out of human solidarity—so maybe we should go back to being paranoid after all. Highly recommended for viewers who enjoy popular science and games of strategy, AlphaGo opens this Friday (9/29) at the Village East.

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