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Former Go world champion retires after declaring “AI is invincible”


It is inevitable that AI and robotics will continue to automate more human jobs and tasks, and society has to have answers and solutions for what’s coming.


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Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation will affect every strata of EU society,” so said the recent European Parliament report. And the this was echoed by a top level Whitehouse report on the impact of AI on Americans that was commissioned back in the day by Barack Obama. While it’s true that AI will impact, and using newspaper speak “ravage,” particular job categories and industries, from the legal and medical professions to the creative profession and beyond, as I travel the world I see a worrying trend – a trend that we are writing ourselves into a corner where the human spirit is crushed not set free. And I, for one, still remain to be convinced that Universal Basic Income (UBI), where governments just pay people for being alive, is a workable long term solution.


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In short, as a global society we’re facing a reality that we’ve faced many times before – the development of technologies that automate jobs and tasks. In the 1800’s and 1900’s it was looms and tractors that replaced people, and then later on it was robots in factories. Now it’s AI and an assortment of other technologies. And all this talk of automation is increasingly being blamed for a spike in mental health issues – something that has a very real world impact for those people who are affected by it.

As a result of all this the news that Lee Se-dol, the world’s number one Go champion who’s been continually beaten since 2016 by DeepMind’s skilled AI’s, has now officially retired because AI in his words “is invincible” raises a whole number of uncomfortable questions and red flags for governments and society in general.

For example, was he wrong to give up and throw in the towel or was he right and just submitting to the inevitable? And if he is just submitting to the inevitable then, frankly, what does that mean for the rest of us normal folk who aren’t champions in our own field? And then, furthermore, what is he going to do next, and why are governments still not laying the foundations to protect or help people who find themselves, now or in the future, in a similar position?


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I imagine that like many people he’s trained all his life to fulfil a specific role and doesn’t have another career conveniently lined up? Perhaps he’ll become an Uber driver. That’s not a flippant comment either – you’d be surprised at how many taxi drivers I meet who took to taxi driving after they got made redundant. And automation is coming for them too, again, by way of self-driving cars and vehicles.

Se-dol told the South Korean Yonhap news agency that his decision to retire  “was motivated by the ascendancy of AI.”

“With the debut of AI in Go games, I’ve realised that I’m not at the top even if I become the number one through frantic efforts,” he told Yonhap. “Even if I become the number one, there is an entity that cannot be defeated.”

For years Go was considered beyond the reach of even the most sophisticated computer programs. The ancient board game is famously complex, with more possible configurations for pieces than atoms in the observable universe.


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This reputation took a knock in 2016 when the Google owned AI company DeepMind shocked the world by defeating Se-dol four matches to one with its AlphaGo AI system. The games had a global impact, alerting the world to a new breed of deep learning programs that promised to be smarter and more creative than the AI of old.

Se-dol, who was the world’s number one ranked Go player in the late 2000s, initially predicted that he would beat AlphaGo in a “landslide” and was shocked by his losses, going so far as to apologise to the South Korean public. “I failed,” he said after the tournament. “I feel sorry that the match is over and it ended like this. I wanted it to end well.”

Despite the outcome, Go experts agreed that the tournament produced outstanding play. AlphaGo surprised the world with its so-called “move 37,” which human experts initially thought was a mistake, but which proved decisive in game two. Lee made his own impact with his “Hand of God” play (move 78), which flummoxed the AI program and allowed Lee to win a single game. He remains the only human to ever defeat AlphaGo in tournament settings.


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Since the tournament, though, DeepMind has only improved its AI Go systems. In 2017, it created AlphaGo Zero, a version of the program which surpassed even AlphaGo – easily.

While the original AI learned to play Go by studying a dataset of more than 100,000 human games, AlphaGo Zero developed its skills by simply playing itself, over and over using synthetic training. After three days of self-play using hugely powerful computer systems that let it play games at superhuman speeds, AlphaGo Zero was able to defeat its predecessor 100 games to nil. DeepMind said at the time that AlphaGo Zero was likely the strongest Go player in history.

In a statement at the time DeepMind’s CEO Demis Hassabis said Lee had demonstrated “true warrior spirit” in his games with AlphaGo. Said Hassabis: “On behalf of the whole AlphaGo team at DeepMind, I’d like to congratulate Lee Se-dol for his legendary decade at the top of the game, and wish him the very best for the future … I know Lee will be remembered as one of the greatest Go players of his generation”

According to Yonhap, Lee isn’t completely giving up on playing AI, though. He plans to commemorate his retirement in December by playing a match against a South Korean AI program called HanDol, which has already beaten the country’s top five players, and he’ll be given a two-stone advantage.


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“Even with a two-stone advantage, I feel like I will lose the first game to HanDol,” he told Yonhap. “These days, I don’t follow Go news. I wanted to play comfortably against HanDol as I have already retired, though I will do my best.”

So, as AI and automation comes for more of us, and as it starts to literally  “affect every strata of society” I have to ask again – where are the government led conversations and solutions, where are the new education initiatives that promote adaptability and entrepreneurship, and frankly, what happens to the fabric of society when AI really starts cranking up the heat?

Well, in the absence of any new thinking from government bodies on the matter from my perspective at least I think we may have part of an answer and I presented it at the World Futures Forum Future of Education and Training 2030 summit we held in London in September, but as technology advances at a faster and faster rate from my “front row seat to the future” I feel that we need to act with a sense of urgency before we end up with millions, or, in the voice some of the world’s leaders, hundreds of millions of Se-dol’s. Thoughts?

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