Film Review: AlphaGo

Entertaining documentary about top Go players facing off against an artificial-intelligence program raises philosophical questions about the relationship between man and intelligent machines.
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Dedicated to exploring and expanding the limits of artificial intelligence, Google company DeepMind is focused testing the abilities of artificial inteligence, especially its potential to make the kind of leap of imagination that goes beyond merely applying its programming to new and unpredictable situations. The vehicle they choose to test and temper their research is Go, the millennia-old Chinese board game that relies both on strategy and on the players' ability to make unexpected, "creative" moves—the latter being, of course, the Achilles’ heel of machines.

This could be dry stuff indeed, and much of AlphaGo’s appeal lies in 2013-2015 European Go Championship winner Fan Hui, who winds up being the modest hero of a film filled with brilliant scientists and big thinkers. Born in China, Fan grew up an avid Go player and moved to France to escape the game, only to learn that he couldn't quit it "I see Go, I also see myself," he says. When first approached about playing against AlphaGo, the artificial-intelligence program developed by a team of researchers at the London-based DeepMind, his cocky response is that he's bound to win because "it's just a program." After losing five for five, Fan changes his tune and joins the team, working with them to refine the program's "thinking." AlphaGo's drama comes from the lead-up to another man-vs.-machine bout in 2016, this time pitting the program against 18-time world champion Go player Lee Sedol of Korea; Fan serves as the program's human surrogate, placing physical pieces on the board.

Filmmaker Greg Kohs intersperses the game play with interviews that address the inevitable issues—notably, is this a step down the path that leads to cyborgs on a mission to destroy the human race? No, says Fei-Fei Li of Stanford A.I. Labs soothingly, "we're really closer to a smart washing machine than [a] Terminator… AI is still very limited in its power." Which is good to hear after looking at all those diagrams illustrating the vast number of possible moves for every turn in Go, moves that the AlphaGo program can assimilate and evaluate with formidable alacrity; for the wrong kind of mind, it's easy to imagine that Hell is an eternity spent placing smooth, round black-and-white stones on a wooden board.

But to his credit, Kohs captures the low-key delight driving everyone involved: The DeepMind team can't believe they're getting to demonstrate the results of their research in such a public way, rather that seeing it buried in an academic journal, and Fan sums up Sedol's game against AlphaGo by observing that in the past, he's competed for himself and for his country. This time he's representing the human race…those are some stakes we can all get behind.

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