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Kasparov-IBM Rivalry Reboots as Google Eyes Global Go Title

By Yang Ge and April Ma

(Beijing) – Some 20 years after a computer first beat a world champion at chess, history could be set to repeat itself at the ancient Chinese board game of Go.

A computer named AlphaGo will formally throw down the gauntlet on Monday to world champion Ke Jie, challenging the Chinese master to a three-game match to take place next month, according to a report on Chinese news portal Sina.com. A Google spokeswoman had no comment on the report, but the company has scheduled a news conference for Monday afternoon.

A potential faceoff was first hinted at about a year ago, shortly after AlphaGo transfixed China for a week during a match that saw the computer defeat South Korean master Lee Sendol by a decisive score of 4-1. Symbolically, the new match would also come almost exactly 20 years after an IBM-owned cyber master named Deep Blue became the first computer to triumph over a reigning world champion by famously beating Russian master Gary Kasparov at a match in Western chess.

According to the Sina report, the new match will take place over five days towards the end of May in the scenic water town of Wuzhen near Shanghai, which has also become famous for staging China’s own global high-tech internet conference over the last three years.

Ke will face a 2.0 version of AlphaGo, which is undefeated in the 60 online games it has played in its brief lifetime against opponents that include Ke, according to the Sina report.

The newest match is likely to fixate China even more than the one last year due to Ke’s own Chinese background and also the board game’s own roots in China, where it is known as Weiqi, said Brock Silvers, managing director at Kaiyuan Capital, an investment advisory.

“Go is popular in schools, on street corners and across the Chinese internet,” he said. “People are thus palpably excited that domestic champion Ke Jie will face off against Google’s near-unbeatable AIphaGo program. The match combines China's love for Go with its burgeoning admiration for artificial intelligence, and thus has cross-generational appeal. And the contrast of East versus West only further excites fans.”

With a history of more than 2,500 years, Go pits two players against each other on a grid-like board using black and white chips or stones. It is believed to be the world’s oldest continuously played board game, and was once considered a past-time of aristocrats.

At the same time, Beijing is strongly pushing the development of artificial intelligence (AI) in the nation’s business community, as it tries to foster a new generation of companies that can move into high-tech services beyond its traditional manufacturing prowess. Two of the nation’s top three internet companies have recently announced the launch of AI labs, and last month social networking giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. debuted its own Go-playing computer, called Fine Art, at a tournament in Japan.

Media Fodder

AlphaGo, which is owned by internet giant Google Inc., first popped into the Chinese headlines just over a year ago as it trounced Lee in a match that was daily fodder in both traditional and new media. Shortly afterwards, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai made an inaugural visit to China in his new role, including a high-profile stop at a leading Go academy in Beijing.

Reports at that time said the Nie Weiping Go School planned to issue a formal challenge to the computer, and Chinese media reported that Ke Jie was expected to face off against AlphaGo sometime in the first half of 2017.

Google itself has had its own rivalry with China, shuttering its locally-based search site in 2010 after a high-profile dispute over the nation’s strict self-censorship rules. More recently, the U.S. giant has sounded more conciliatory notes, with former CEO Eric Schmidt and Pichai both making visits to the country. In addition, Google has resumed conferences in China for developers of apps for its Android smartphone operating system, and also held an event for entrepreneurs.

Those moves have led many to speculate the company could be planning a return to China for its app store, Google Play. The most recent reports have cited unnamed sources saying the company was in talks for a possible joint venture with NetEase Inc., China’s second-largest game operator.

Google has repeatedly declined to talk about specifics, and frequently points out that it never left China.

The company currently has a local office in Beijing, pointed out said Yang Jing, author and founder of a portal that writes about topics related to artificial intelligence. “But it could still be a little ways before a complete return to China,” she said. “In terms of technology support and open platforms, they may get some presence.”

Contact reporter: Yang Ge (geyang@caixin.com)

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