AlphaGo, a sports movie for big nerds

(Christy Hemphill) #1

Last night my daughters were at a sleepover, so we picked a Netflix movie we thought my son would really like. AlphaGo is a documentary about the computer scientists who wrote the code for the program that played the world champion Go player. (I won’t tell you how it came out, in the five game match, wouldn’t want to ruin the suspense). It was an interesting movie on several levels.

First, it was kind of a cross-cultural education, since I had no idea what a huge deal Go is in China, Korea, and Japan. According to one of the people interviewed, it is considered one of the four noble arts, up there with poetry, music, and painting. Children are taught to play from a young age, much like we would put our kids in piano lessons or ballet class.

Second, it raised some interesting questions about artificial intelligence, ethics, and what constitutes creativity and intuition. All good things to discuss.

Third, if you have kids that are more STEM inclined than athletically inclined, it was lots of fun to see what is essentially a sports movie, but where the heroes of the team are computer scientists and strategy game prodigies.

As my son said when the credits were rolling, “I can’t believe this only got two stars on Netflix!” Yeah, well, it definitely appealed to a niche audience.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #2

Our family just watched it now too. Thanks for the recommendation. I find Go to be a bit intimidating to just “pick up”. I think those who were immersed in it as children must enjoy a big advantage of developed game intuition.

The AI discussions in the movie provoked something else for me, though, that interacts with somebody else I’ve been listening to: Anand Giridharadas.

It was as positive and hopeful a spin as I’ve heard put on AI for a while as we are more accustomed to contemplating the doomsday scenarios, courtesy of sci-fi film entertainment. But what seems to be ‘under-contemplated’ are the more mundane effects AI has already had (is already having) on our workforce world, and one is naive, I think to insist that it must be mostly good.

Anand Giridharadas is an American - Indian journalist who has been writing about the notions we have of “tweaking and adjusting” to preserve a system that keeps us on top and others underneath. Here is his speech to the Aspen Institute - worth a listen. AI is one of those major knobs, and it keeps getting dialed “progressively” up with the perpetual optimism (apart from doomsayers) that it has been and/or will be for human good.

And here is a recent On Being interview with Anand where he discusses his book “Winners take all”.

Not to derail any good conversation you might want about the game “Go” here - this is more of a related spin-off topic that the Alphago movie provoked for me.

(Christy Hemphill) #3

I thought it was interesting that it was portrayed as positive that playing against the computer was changing the way humans approached the game. It seemed like kind of a shame to me that 3,000 years of human tradition could be completely shaken up by an AI playmate. But, who knows, maybe if you are good at the game, it’s exciting to have new avenues and new twists opened up.


The impression I took away was human game play was in a rut. AlphaGo was just showing new ways to look at the game.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #5

Those still wanting to enjoy the suspense of the movie may want to refrain from reading any farther until you’ve seen it.

The special thing about these latest AI forays into human gaming is that they are more and more (but not completely!) self-taught. It still didn’t start from scratch, though, as they apparently gave it a jump start by downloading a whole bunch of games by good human players, before they let it play itself and improve from there. So in one sense (to my way of thinking) the AI is granted an enormous handicap in that it has already matched wits with a huge cross-section of humanity (maybe even including Lee’s games?) whereas Lee is forced to make his public face-off with it without any prior experience with it to assess what it can do.

I was at first a little dismayed (and yet also impressed) with the unflappable confidence that Lee put on before the match, but then also very impressed with how he handled himself afterward! Score big for nerds in my books!

(Christy Hemphill) #6

Yes, I think that is how it was portrayed, as an exciting development.

(Christy Hemphill) #7

My husband said if there was a Lee Sedol jersey out there, he would wear it. :slight_smile:

(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

I’m already planning on including a question or two about the game of “Go” in our next school’s scholar bowl meet (I write most of the questions), just to reward any students who may be keeping abreast of trendy things beyond U.S. borders. We already toss in occasional sports questions just to throw a bone to some of the few athletically-involved among our young scholars. I’m usually impressed if they know something about football (even if it’s just American football), …how much more appropriate if they know something about a much more quintessentially brainy game? I’m betting that most of my midwest students here though will never have even heard of it. Can’t say I ever had when I was their age.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #9

I got a kick out of how the sports commentators were analyzing Lee’s every expression. What did that smile mean - or was that a look of concern; what is he thinking about his opponent right now? It’s cool to hear commentators spending all this time micro-analyzing nerd behavior for once. I was also impressed with how they almost immediately all knew whether certain moves were good ones or not (although they left room for just that little bit of doubt as to what Alphago might be up to - that maybe a dumb looking move might just be a brilliant one nobody had yet thought of.)

[If your husband ever starts a line of jerseys, let me know. I’m in.]