How AI turned the ancient Chinese sport of Go upside down

Hong Kong (CNN) In December, when the AI ​​chatbot ChatGPT wowed the world with its human-like answers to questions, a major artificial intelligence-related fraud scandal erupted in Asia.

The Chunlan Cup, an international tournament with a prize pool of US$200,000 for winning the ancient Chinese board game Go, was embroiled in controversy after a semifinal match.

In a David vs. Goliath moment, a relative newcomer, Li Xuanhao of China, defeated reigning world champion Shin Jin-seo of South Korea. Taking to social media, Li’s own teammate accused him of cheating with AI, which is usually used during training but is banned during competition.

The controversy was reported by major newspapers, including Chinese state media. Players have called for new measures to prevent AI-assisted cheating, saying it is an existential threat to the sport, known as Weiqi in China and Baduk in Korea.

A live stream of the semifinal match between Li Xuanhao (top) and Shin Jin-seo (bottom). Viewers can see the AI-calculated outcome probability in real-time.

Although the Chinese Weiqi Association said after weeks of investigations it had found no evidence of cheating, the scandal raised questions about the future of the 2,500-year-old sport and offered a glimpse into the kind of disruptions technologies like ChatGPT are bringing to a world can bring previously dominated by humans.

“The AI ​​destroyed all existing orders from it [Go] Community and rebuilt it,” Jiuheng He, an avid Go player who studies AI at Cornell University, told CNN. “Human experts used to dominate the entire empire. Now we have to accept a non-human actor who has expertise, maybe even surpassed the human experts. So how are we going to deal with that?”

How AI changed the game

The Chunlan Cup scandal wasn’t the first time AI disrupted the game of Go.

For thousands of years it was considered the pinnacle of intellectual pursuit in East Asia. According to the Chinese Weiqi Association, 40 million players are already studying at 200,000 schools in China.

Unlike chess, which was dominated by computer programs from the 1990s, Go was considered too complex to mechanize due to the nearly infinite number of possible moves on its 19 by 19 grid.

Go is an ancient board game for two players that, despite its relatively simple rules, is known for being rich in strategy.

Go masters, once household names in Asia, were revered. Like gods, they seemed to “stand on mountains,” and according to He, all knowledge of the game flowed from them. They were so famous that they published books advising gamers on life.

But Google’s superhuman AI came to market in 2016. 18-time World Champion Lee Se-dol of South Korea was defeated by AlphaGo in a highly publicized match. Lee announced his retirement three years later, citing the match as the reason.

“Humans have been playing Go and improving it for thousands of years, but AI has shown within a year that they are better. That our level of Go is really beginner,” Ao Lixian, who teaches at Hong Kong Children’s Go College, told CNN.

At the school, which opened in 2003, Ao and another instructor, Ng Chee Man, use AI to teach kids how to play Go, which has become an integral part of virtually every gamer’s journey.

Ao Lixian and her students discuss strategy at Hong Kong Children’s Go College (CNN has blurred parts of the image to protect a child’s identity).

Using an iPad, Ng demonstrated a practice game against AI to his students. Each time it was Ng’s turn, the AI ​​program suggested the best moves in blue squares on the board.

In the corner of the screen, the program displayed which of its moves were rated “good” in green and “bad” in red, along with the percentage closeness of its moves to those of the AI.

Fraud “made easy”?

While training with AI has become commonplace, competing is another matter entirely.

Shin Jin-seo, the South Korean world champion, told CNN that cheating in tournaments is a big problem. In his country alone, there have been at least two well-known AI-powered fraud scandals since 2016.

According to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, in 2020 a South Korean court sentenced two people to a year in prison after they were caught using AI at an official competition.

The player sneaked a camera and headphones into the match and received AI-calculated moves from an outside accomplice.

Later that same year, the Korea Baduk Association investigated one of its professional players after allegations surfaced online. The federation promised to prevent future AI-assisted cheating after the player admitted wrongdoing.

Even though phones are banned in professional games and cameras are watching players, games are still vulnerable, according to Shin.

“If I would try to cheat, I can see teammates off camera and when I go to the bathroom there is nobody there,” he said.

Shin says he doesn’t know if there was any cheating during his game against Li, but he fears the sport will lose importance if organizations can’t guarantee clean games.

In the online Go leagues Jiuheng He attends, top players are the ones who use AI, even though strictly speaking they shouldn’t. The game he has been playing since childhood has lost its appeal for him.

The game used to be like talking to your opponent, he said. Her thoughts and intentions revealed themselves with every movement. “(With AI) there’s no more dialogue because I really can’t understand it [its] logic,” he said.

Life with AI

Shin spends more than 70% of his training hours using AI software called KataGo, developed in 2017 by American computer programmer David Wu. AI has managed to set a new, higher bar for gamers, even as it disrupted the game, he said.

Professor Nam Chi-hyung, who has been teaching Go for more than 20 years, says AI has become indispensable in her teaching. Rather than being replaced by technology, she found her work was simply changing.

“AI can choose the right moves, but can’t explain why. People still need me to interpret AI,” she said.

For fans, AI has made the complex game more accessible. During games, it’s not uncommon for the results to be unclear to many viewers. But now, with the help of AI, viewers can clearly see who is winning or losing during the game.

A man watches a TV screen showing live footage of the Google DeepMind Challenge match at the Korea Baduk Association in Seoul in March 2016.

But AI is not perfect. The Financial Times reported last month that a human player defeated KataGo by exploiting a vulnerability discovered with another program.

KataGo is not omnipotent, Wu told CNN. The programs make mistakes when confronted with unknown problems; the same problems that a human being instinctively knows how to solve.
But some players believe that the AI ​​is ruining the sport, which was drawn to its unpredictability and variety of styles. After all, we can’t go back, Nam said, “It’s done. Everyone runs their AI machines.”

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