Lee Sedol

“I, Lee Se-dol, lost, but mankind did not.”

— Lee Se-dol, South Korea’s professional Go player

When one man is pitted against the machine, one that is AI-powered with algorithms and permutations in its favour, there’s no other resolve than to fight until the end.

With more board configurations than there are atoms in the universe, the ancient 3,000 year old Chinese game of Go has long been considered a grand challenge for artificial intelligence.

On 9th March 2016, Lee Se-dol began playing a five-game match, broadcast live, against the computer program AlphaGo, developed by a London-based artificial intelligence firm Google DeepMind, for a $1 million match prize. He said “I have heard that Google DeepMind’s AI is surprisingly strong and getting stronger, but I am confident that I can win at least this time”. In an interview with JTBC Newsroom on February 22, 2016, he showed confidence in his chances again, while saying that even beating AlphaGo by 4–1 may allow the Google DeepMind team to claim its de facto victory and the defeat of him, or even humanity. In this interview he pointed out the time rule in this match, which seems well-balanced so that both he and the AI would fairly undergo time pressure. In another interview at Yonhap News, Lee Se-dol said that he was confident of beating AlphaGo by a score of 5–0, at least 4–1 and accepted the challenge in only five minutes. He also stated “Of course, there would have been many updates in the last four or five months, but that isn’t enough time to challenge me”.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world watched as a legendary Go master took on an unproven AI challenger for the first time in history.

His competing against the AlphaGo computer drew comparisons to Garry Kasparov’s chess matches against the Deep Blue supercomputer in 1997.

On 19 November 2019, Lee announced his retirement from professional play, arguing that he could never be the top overall player of Go due to the increasing dominance of AI. Lee referred to them as being “an entity that cannot be defeated”.

He lost 4-1 to AlphaGo in that five-round tournament but still remains the first and only Go player to beat Google’s algorithm.

The 36-year-old officially stepped down from competing by submitting a letter of retirement to South Korea’s Go Association.


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