Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

n the Age of Google DeepMind, Do the Young Go Prodigies of Asia Have a Future?

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Dawn Chan in the New Yorker:

Choong-am Dojang is far from a typical Korean school. Its best pupils will never study history or math, nor will they receive traditional high-school diplomas. The academy, which operates above a bowling alley on a narrow street in northwestern Seoul, teaches only one subject: the game of Go, known in Korean as baduk and in Chinese as wei qi. Each day, Choong-am’s students arrive at nine in the morning, find places at desks in a fluorescent-lit room, and play, study, memorize, and review games—with breaks for cafeteria meals or an occasional soccer match—until nine at night.
Choong-am, which is the product of a merger between four top Go academies, is currently the biggest of a handful of _dojang_s in South Korea. Many of the students enrolled in these schools have been training since they were four or five, perhaps playing informally at first but later growing obsessed with the game’s beauty and the competitiveness and camaraderie that surround it. (Indeed, the word “dojang” more commonly refers to a martial-arts academy.) Lee Hajin, the secretary-general of the International Go Federation, told me that she left home when she was nine. With only her clothes and a stuffed-toy poodle backpack that her parents gave her for Christmas, she moved across the country, into the home of a Go master and his wife.
The aim of all serious Go pupils is ultimately to be designated a professional. This makes them eligible to compete in Asia’s pro tournaments, which are broadcast on TV and sponsored by companies such as Samsung, LG, and the instant-noodle maker Nongshim. At the highest-level tournaments, first-place winners can win as much as three hundred thousand dollars. But the competition is fierce. It is estimated that, of South Korea’s three hundred and twenty pros, only around fifty are able to earn a living on tournament winnings. Sometimes, after losing an especially important match, players joke about drowning themselves in the Han River. Lee Hajin recalls having such bad insomnia before important games that her teacher’s wife would bring her a shot of whiskey, diluted in a cup of water, to help her fall asleep.
Go itself is simple in design but complex in its possible outcomes: two players, one using white stones and the other black, take turns placing their pieces on a square board, capturing territory and boxing each other out. If a child dedicating her life to such a game seems unfathomable elsewhere in the world, it makes more sense in East Asia, where Go has a twenty-five-hundred-year cultural history. Through the centuries, princes, generals, monks, and farmers have played the game, not only to win but to build character and develop mental acumen. “It’s also psychology, philosophy—it’s art,” Fan Hui, the reigning European Go champion, told me. In Tang-dynasty China, the game was considered one of the four arts that a cultivated gentleman ought to master, along with calligraphy, painting, and playing the lute. So many East Asian leaders have studied it that political scientists are wont to identify traces of Go strategy in the continent’s real-world conflicts. Henry Kissinger, for instance, argued that during the Taiwan Strait crisis of the nineteen-fifties, “both sides were playing by wei qi rules.” Today, Seoul’s Myongji University even offers degrees in Go studies. According to Daniela Trinks, a professor in the department, one in four Koreans knows how to play the game.
But recent events could pose a threat to Go’s cultural supremacy. Earlier this week, one of the world’s top players, Lee Sedol, lost two high-profile matches—the first of a planned five—to AlphaGo, an artificial-intelligence program created by Google DeepMind. The same program beat Fan Hui, 5–0, back in October. Until then, Go had been considered the only popular two-player board game that humans would continue to dominate for the foreseeable future, its array of outcomes still too dizzyingly vast for even increasingly smart machines to pick out the best moves. That, of course, has now changed. Even if Lee miraculously comes back to win his remaining three games, the first of which takes place on Saturday, in Seoul, AlphaGo promises to grow even more formidable. (“If there’s a limit to improvement, we haven’t hit it yet,” Demis Hassabis, DeepMind’s founder and C.E.O., told me.) What’s notable, too, is how quickly AlphaGo improves compared with humans. The program lost two quick, unofficial matches with Fan Hui that were scheduled between longer, official ones, which the computer won. Five months later, it is capable of defeating Lee, who is ranked far higher than Fan. According to Ben Lockhart, one of the best amateur Go players born outside East Asia, Fan “could have trained his whole life and would never have gotten close to where Lee Sedol is.”
Lockhart, as it happens, is the lone American pupil currently enrolled at Choong-am. He is an anomaly at the dojang, not just because he is a foreigner but also because he has memories of a life without intensive Go. When he was in high school, in Brooklyn, playing the game but also “smoking a lot of weed and listening to Noam Chomsky in Prospect Park,” his peers in Seoul were already deep into their training regimens. Now, however, Lockhart is more disciplined. Last Friday, he began his morning by trying to make progress through a book of six hundred Go problems. These exercise books are a common component of Go pedagogy, as are actual matches and occasional lectures by professionals. Students sometimes memorize parts of games, or even whole games, from the canon. They also practice specific skills, such as “reading,” or peering into the future at branching paths of possibility—an activity that’s not dissimilar to the so-called tree-search components of AlphaGo and many other game-playing A.I.s.
In the long course of their training, students may play upwards of ten thousand games, developing intuitions about which moves tend to work out well and which don’t. AlphaGo, analogously, improves by playing itself, with the added advantage that it can flit through games quickly, while humans take time to think and place stones on a board. (In January, the DeepMind team published a paper in Nature noting that one of AlphaGo’s neural networks had played more than a million games in a single day.) But there is one particularly interesting difference between a dojang’s pedagogical program and AlphaGo’s: human students receive active guidance from teachers, who can draw attention to specific mistakes or suggest generalized patterns to seek out or avoid. According to DeepMind’s most recent account, although AlphaGo’s learning is shaped by observations of expert human games, it doesn’t receive targeted advice from any outsiders.
Although some Go players are eager to see whether computers will unlock undiscovered moves and strategies, others seem despondent. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 August 2017 at 3:26 pm

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