Google Clandestinely Returns to China's Internet By Beating it at its Own Game

They're back.

After making a undignified retreat in 2010, Google has made a triumphant return to the Chinese Internet. What's more, they've done it by defeating China at its own game: Go.

Google DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis confirmed yesterday that the mysterious online player that has soundly defeated a number of Chinese and South Korean Go champions is in fact an updated version of its Go-playing artificial intelligence, AlphaGo. 

AlphaGo began its path of online destruction on the South Korean Tygem server on December 29, winning against top Chinese Go players like Chen Yaoye and Lian Xiao before moving on to China's FoxGo server. In just under a week, AlphaGo secretly amassed a winning record of 60-1 online games using the alias "Master."

If anything, AlphaGo's appearance on the Chinese Internet may have been too successful. Users openly speculated the nigh-unbeatable player was not human after it won 10 games in a single day without resting. Furthermore, an unprecedented 41 game-winning streak prompted Chinese champion Gu Li to offer a USD 14,000 bounty to whomever could end the carnage.

Alas, the only human able to resist the onslaught was Beijing's own Chen Yaoye, who managed to squeak out a draw.

In a prominent match-up that demonstrated how far modern computers have evolved, AlphaGo triumphed 4-1 over South Korean Go champion Lee Sedol. Although computers have already surpassed human ability when it comes to the Western version of chess, the Eastern version of the game had proven to be a bigger challenge due to each turn of Go having a great deal more possibilities.

Needless to say, Go (围棋, wéiqí) is a big deal in China. Whereas the colloquial version of Chinese chess (called 象棋, xiàngqí) is a beloved pastime for Chinese locals everywhere, a game of Go is viewed as nothing less than a cerebral contest between enlightened minds. Steeped in tradition, the game of Go is so popular in China that entire television channels are devoted to it.

And yet, the biggest reason as to why Go is beloved in China may be national pride. Like many other things that originated in China, Chinese have a territorial view when it comes to Go.

AlphaGo's defeat of Lee marked the end of human dominance over the ancient Chinese game, but Chinese Internet users weren't impressed with the victory. Many Chinese netizens were adamant that a computer wouldn't be able to win at China's other national table game, table tennis mahjong

One Chinese netizen wrote, "Sometimes with a glimpse of the other player’s facial expression, I know how he or she is going to play. Can artificial intelligence do that?" Another said, "If we say Go games are all about mathematics, then mahjong is all about philosophy."

Despite these criticisms, even the world's best Go player has resigned himself to the fact that a computer may be better at playing China's own game than one of its own. 

Number one-ranked Chinese Go champion Ke Jie had previously called AlphaGo an "easy opponent" over which he could "win 100 times out of 100 games" yet not feel "the same strong instinct of victory when I play a human player." However, after AlphaGo defeated Lee, Ke changed his mind

"AlphaGo was perfect and made no mistake," said the 19-year-old grandmaster in describing its win over Lee, whom Ke has defeated four times in 2016 alone. "If the conditions are the same, it is highly likely that I can lose." 

Now that AlphaGo has been revealed as the secret online Go champion that had been causing consternation among Chinese netizens, Ke continues to be wary. "When facing it, all traditional tactics are wrong," Ke recently said.

But even if Chinese players aren't able to beat a computer at its own national pastime, then at the very least China won't allow a non-Chinese company to have the best Go-playing artificial intelligence in the world.

After AlphaGo's win over Lee, a team of Chinese scientists formally announced they are developing a supercomputer capable of defeating AlphaGo last April. Although no formal announcements have been made, Baidu is also rumored to be developing a similar machine, thereby taking humans out of the equation entirely.

Unwilling to be confined to online games, Google DeepMind has said that AlphaGo is "looking forward to playing some official, full-length games later this year."

With so much at stake, Ke will be fighting for more than his reputation when he and AlphaGo eventually battle to determine humanity's – and China's – superiority.

More stories by this author here.

Photos: Google/the Beijinger, NBC NewsMyFun

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