If it was just about man versus machine in the ancient Chinese game of Go, then Google has come out on top.
The reigning world champion, 19-year-old prodigy Ke Jie proved no match for the tech giant’s artificial intelligence AlphaGo, losing the game of strategy in the picturesque water town of Wuzhen.
The contest is seen as an attempt for the Californian company to make a soft entry back into the Chinese market, seven years after they withdrew amid censorship and hacking concerns.
The best of three match-up against Ke drew comparisons to IBM DeepBlue’s chess games against the Russian master Gary Kasparov in the 1990s.
“I have a huge amount of respect for Ke Jie taking on AlphaGo, and as a human he has to take on not just the game itself but also the psychological pressure of being in this intense situation”, AlphaGo lead developer David Silver said.
Developers said the AI had significantly improved since a similar series of games with a South Korean champion in early 2016.
“The game of Go is so complex that the number of configurations on the board is greater than the number of atoms in the universe”, Mr Silver said.
Mr Silver’s British-based team developed ‘neural networks’ in the machine that feedback information and allow it to make precise calculations on the probability of winning each move.
He said Ke represented the pinnacle of human skill when it came to playing Go.
“He’s very young, he grew up playing Go on the internet and played thousands and thousands of games online and developed strategies that are very different to how the game used to be played,” he said.
But it wasn’t enough to beat AlphaGo, which Google said will now retire.
“I feel like I can’t beat it no matter how hard I try,” Ke said after his second match.
AlphaGo Google’s ticket back to China
Google’s suite of services, including its popular Gmail service, remain blocked in China — a situation other US tech giants like Facebook and Twitter also contend with.
In their absence, Chinese domestic tech companies have flourished, leading analysts to believe Beijing’s ‘by hook or by crook’ stifling of the US giants is as much to do with protectionism as censorship.
Google spared no effort in using the Go tournament as a charm offensive.
It hired a conference centre built only a few years ago by China’s Government to host an annual internet summit.
It also flew out the executive chairman of parent company Alphabet, Eric Schmidt, who used an address to urge Chinese tech companies to use Google’s machine learning products.
But on the surface at least, this gathering was all about the game of Go.
In the final days before the first match, Chinese websites planning to livestream the matches to fans across the country were issued a directive from the Government not to.
The heavy handed move potentially denied millions of fans the opportunity to watch this showcase event, signalling to Google that even taking incremental steps to return to China’s vast market won’t be straightforward.
Watch Bill Birtles’ story tonight on Lateline at 9.30pm on ABC News 24 or 10.30pm on ABC TV.