“GO” is an ancient boardgame .It is possibly the oldest boardgame known to man and it is very much an ingrained part of the culture of the east. I came across mention of it in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. Somehow, it began being mentioned in the underground press and in the art colleges alongside talk of this new-fangled solar power and geodesic dome constructions . There was much fascination in the 1960’s and early 1970’s with all sorts of esoteric ideas and novel thinking.Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were reading their own copies of that big floppy Whole Earth Catalog before they decided to replace it all with Apple and the personal computer revolution and bring communication to the next evolutionary level. Hippies like Steve Jobs would mess about with tarot cards and the I-Ching ..the Chinese Book of Changes. They’d mess about with Transendental Meditation or Zen. They’d practice yoga and Tai Chi and eat macrobiotic food. .Most of these practices were very novel to most western eyes and their ancient pedigree made them seem very exotic and esoteric.The game “GO” became a part of that, even though it had been already well-established in China and the east. I never played it myself but I read about it with some fascination.
In the east GO was thought of as more than a game .It was practised as a martial art and was a large part of the training of strategy for warriors in Japan, China, and Korea for centuries.It was part of the culture and classical education for men and women along with the art of calligraphy, music, and painting. In modern times there are now millions of GO enthusiasts right across Asia and throughout the world. You can even play it online as the internet spans the world of the 21st century. It is thought of in parts of the east much like the Irish consider music, literature and poetry in Ireland.It is thought of with cultural pride and a certain ownership…a more complex version of chess.
It’s not surprising that it came as something of a cultural shock ,when in South Korea, this fine artform of a game was recently tested and bested by modern computer -robotics. Basically a man-made form of Artificial Intelligence (AI) bested the greatest human champion of GO all -hollow. It rocked the Asian world’s sense of themselves. In south Korea there was cultural puzzlement and uproar.Google’s AlphaGo Deepmind program won in four out of five matches of the board game GO against champion Lee Sedol in a contest which lasted a mind-numbing week. As GO is a very complex game this was seen as a huge advancement in AI. People simply did not expect their human champion to be bested .AlphaGo’s victory was seen as a major milestone for A.I. due to the complexity of the board game, but Lee Sedol said AlphaGo had the upper hand in terms of its lack of vulnerability to emotion and fatigue.This is seen as two crucial aspects in the intense brain game which can last over five stressful hours per session. He was probably a bit miffed too in that the games had been avidly watched by fans all across Asia and he had let them down…Google has estimated that some 60 million people in China, where GO is a popular pastime, watched the first match on Wednesday.That’s a lot of interest for a mere board game….
Never mind the denizens of Norneverland getting into an uproar about the symbolism of flags that have only been around a mere handful of years, GO had been the measure of an entire culture since time-immemorial in the east. A nation’s cultural notion of themselves had been found failing in face of the onward march of science. Come to that ,If a machine could play GO better than any living human -being what did that say about humans sense of themselves worldwide and what about that atavistic fear of futuristic technology ? If machines can begin to think for themselves and develop strategies for their own survival what will the future hold for humanity and its pettyfogging notions of self and identity? This would have been science-fiction a generation ago , but then so too would have been the internet and the personal phone in your pocket.
Are things beginning to move at too fast a pace for us humans? Already in supermarkets and banks we are encouraged to interact with machinery rather than humanity.We scan our groceries and a barcode is read off. Our banking is done either soley by an unsurpervised cash machine or across the internet. So here we are a mere forty or fifty years after my own art school days and the idea of the internet… and already the next generation of robotics are being built to look and react like humans and possibly interact with them on a social level within another generation. There’s even talk of uploading our lives and minds into functioning robotic bodies that might live forever.Will people eventually not want to go to heaven after all?
Meanwhile , just as computers have become the gateway to all knowledge so too lawyers , professors, doctors, analysts and teachers are about to be replaced by human-like androids which will never tire out or get a headache. It appears that the computer that bested the GO master has actually begun to learn and think for itself and is less prone to making mistakes. Google is well on the way to introducing the driverless robotic car; a car that can park itself and drive safely without a driver’s assistance….lorries that can deliver goods on their own.We may not be ready for it yet , but it is almost ready for us.
It would seem the time is fast approaching when we’ll really have to think about what it actually means to be a human being in a world brimming with thinking machines which might be a lot smarter than the best of us.What they’ll make of our obsession with culture and identity is anyone’s guess.We’ll have to leave that little conundrum for our grandchildren….or just maybe our great grandchildren to figure out .