Lee Hajin recently published an interesting article on the ‘Impact of Go ai on the Professional Go World’ on medium.com. I found myself disagreeing with many of her points, and so decided to write my own remarks on the topic. Note that my intention is not to attack or ‘bash’ Lee’s opinions, but rather to bring forth another point of view.
Lee writes on three areas of the professional go world that go ai has affected:
Lee’s first point is that with the advent of go ai, the way of reaching for the ‘ultimate level of play’ has shifted from being a lifelong inner search, not unlike that of a philosopher’s or monk’s, to study involving computers. My interpretation of Lee’s message is that the ai’s surpassing of humans has demystified the game, making it something that can be measured and optimised like computers do, and that this is a bad thing.
Lee recalls that when she was a student of the game, she lived at her teacher’s place with other students and they studied and learned the game together. This is called the ‘uchi-deshi’ system (literally ‘inside student’, meaning students who live at their teacher’s place), and as far as I know, it was also common among Japanese professionals until the late 1990s – the Kitani dōjō is probably the most famous example. In the 2000s, it seems that the system fell out of fashion earlier and not for reasons related to the ai. Possible reasons for this include people starting to have fewer children (and therefore not wanting to ‘give them away’), daycare services becoming more common, and child welfare law becoming stricter.
Two sentences in particular piqued my attention: ‘. . . no one questioned that go was a path you walk for a lifetime’ and ‘The belief was, as a professional player, you explore and endeavour to reach an ever higher level of understanding.’ Lee seems to combine these two with the silent assumption that the professionals’ goal is to strive for the ‘highest possible level of go’, which is no longer possible because the ai cannot be beat; incidentally, Lee Sedol remarked something similar when he announced his retirement. To me, on the other hand, it seems like nothing has changed because I have always reached for the ‘highest possible personal level of go’, and this should be the same for most players who are not near the top of the world.
Lee’s second point is that the advent of ai has reduced the variety in personal playing styles; that, ‘today, everyone is trying to imitate the ai style, and the pros judge each other only by who is better at playing like the ai.’
While I agree that ai-inspired moves are now increasingly common among top players, I predict that the situation is a bit more like if Ancient Greek mathematicians were given a graphing calculator: of course they will first lose themselves in playing around with the new toy, but eventually they will get used to the new possibilities and life returns to a slightly more normal state. For top professionals, it is valuable to be aware of the newest developments (or ‘meta’) so that one can on the one hand avoid larger mistakes, and on the other save valuable time during tournament games. Besides top games, I suspect the ai has actually made more styles of playing possible. My kifu newsletter subscribers have read some of my research regarding the (surprising) viability of the sanrensei and Southern cross opening, and the third-strongest ai on the Computer Go Server plays the Black hole opening, of all things. And, of course, the ai has the great added benefit that it makes it possible for players not from Asian countries to possibly someday become the world champion.
Lee’s third point relates to teaching pros; she remarks that ‘the demand for pro-level teaching games and private lessons has plummeted.’ I can see this being the case especially in Asia; and, in fact, some teaching professionals may now find it difficult to even make a living from the game. The sad thing is that this should not be so, because good teachers still have a lot to give what the ai cannot. While the ai may point out your mistakes and show you better moves, it cannot tell you why the other move is better, or teach you higher-level concepts that make it possible for you to avoid similar mistakes in the future. My teacher remarked that people who learn moves directly from the ai are ‘studying’ the game similarly to if they were memorising jōseki, and I generally agree with the notion.
Personally I have found one new challenge to my job as a go teacher, which many readers are familiar with from my other posts: that of ai-related cheating. There have been many reported cases of cheating in online study leagues, and I even know of cases where a student used an ai in their games against their teacher. As this kind of conduct is directly self-harming – you are paying for doing a disservice to yourself – it is clear that its motivation lies somewhere else than learning. As for whether it is in perceived social status (e.g., getting to a higher rank or impressing your teacher) or the joy of winning a game, even if undeservedly, I cannot possibly say. The main threat I see in this conduct is that it seems to devalue go as a pastime altogether: what should have been an intellectual pursuit in learning is becoming something more like ‘press a button to win the game’.
In fact, recently it seems like more and more people have a natural dislike of anything arduous or difficult. I was reminded of this the other day when I was listening to The Brain by David Eagleman, where he explains how the human brain has evolved to conserve as much energy as possible (as, even in its current state, it still takes up one-fifth of the body’s total energy consumption). Quite possibly as an extension of this, during my training games I sometimes get an urge to check what the ai would do in that situation, so that I could avoid having to do the hard work myself; and I would be surprised if I was the only one who experiences this. How I cure this is by reminding myself why I am playing in the first place.
To me, superhuman go ai has changed nothing about the reason why I play go. The game is still an intellectual pursuit and a journey of self-betterment, and the ai is merely one more tool that one can use. However, I am also a go teacher, and as a teacher I am getting increasingly worried about the laziness-inducing side effects of the ai tool.
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