SEOUL, March 21 (Korea Bizwire) – The historic five-round showdown between South Korean Go master Lee Se-dol and Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) program AlphaGo ended last Tuesday with a lot of buzz.
While people still talk about the greatness of humanity and the future of AI, the South Korean Go community is happy regardless of the final result because the human-versus-computer tournament delivered a big gift: boosting public interest in Go.
“This is the first time in history that Go has earned this much attention,” said Park Chi-moon, the vice president of the Korea Baduk Association. “We hope this event spreads the popularity of Go.”
Go, known as “baduk” in Korea, is a board game that originated in China more than 2,500 years ago. It involves two players alternately putting black and white stones on a checkerboard-like grid of 19 lines by 19 lines. The object is to claim larger territories than one’s opponent by surrounding vacant areas of the board using one’s own stones.
It has been known as one of the most creative games, as Go’s possible number of board configurations is larger than the number of atoms in the universe. For this reason, Go has been seen as an excellent mind sport especially for those who want to exercise their brains.
“I love Go,” said Demis Hassabis, the CEO of Google DeepMind that designed AlphaGo. “It’s the most elegant game that humans have ever invented.”
In South Korea, Go became more widespread among the public since the Korea Baduk Association (KBA), the national governing body of the ancient board game, was founded in 1954. Go had its heyday in the 1980s to 1990s with local professional players collecting good results at international tournaments.
When Cho Hun-hyun won the inaugural Ing Cup in 1989, becoming the first South Korean to win an international title, he even had a vehicle parade for him in Seoul. His only pupil, Lee Chang-ho, then revolutionized the scene with his exceptional skills and prompted young students to learn Go.
However, the rise of computer games and Internet has pushed South Koreans away from the time-consuming and complex board game.
“When Lee Chang-ho was at his prime, there were about 300 Go schools alone in Seoul, and some had more than 100 students,” Koo Ki-ho, a public relations director at the KBA, told Yonhap News Agency last Monday. “But there are now fewer than 100 Go schools, and only 30 to 40 students at each one.”
According to data from Gallup Korea, 36.5 percent of South Korean adults in 1992 knew how to play Go. But in 2004, it fell to 20.3 percent. While Lee Se-dol received the torch from Lee Chang-ho in the mid-2000s and tried to keep the public interest in Go, the portion increased slightly to 25 percent in 2013, still low compared with the game’s heyday.
In recent years, Go started to regain the spotlight, thanks to popular TV series.
In 2014, the TV series “Misaeng” was a national sensation. The cable drama, which was adapted from a webtoon series, depicted a man working as an intern at a large trading company after failing to become a professional Go player. Misaeng, which literally translates to “an incomplete life” and also a term used in Go, often explained the protagonist’s situation through moves in the ancient board game, reminding people of a proverb that “Go is a microcosm of human life.”
From November to January, the TV series “Reply 1988″ caused more people to take an interest in Go, as one of the main characters in the drama was a Go prodigy. In the series, Choi Taek, played by actor Park Bo-gum, is known to be a character based on legendary Go player Lee Chang-ho.
While these hit TV series raised public interest in Go, the South Korean Go community was struggling to find ways to keep the vibe alive and make people actually watch and play the ancient board game.
Then the landmark battle between Lee Se-dol and AlphaGo, which was named the Google DeepMind Challenge Match, materialized.
As the matchup of the AI and the South Korean ninth-dan Go player with 18 international titles was approaching, South Korea was already feeling the fever with rising sales of Go-related products.
I’Park Department Store in Yongsan, Seoul, said its board game sales from March 1 to 9 surged 115.9 percent on-year, while the online shop Auction reported that Go-related product sales from Feb. 10 to March 9 surged 30 percent over previous months. The online bookshop Aladdin said that sales of Go-related books from March 1 to 8 increased 50 percent compared with a year earlier.
And the Go contest turned out to be a massive hit.
For the tournament opener, which was broadcast by public channel KBS 2 starting at 1 p.m. on March 9, the nationwide viewership marked 5.5 percent, according to Nielsen Korea. This was nearly five times higher than its usual rating in that time period. By the end of the event, all three national terrestrial TV networks — KBS, MBC and SBS — as well as cable channels, showed the match live, which the KBA said was the first time ever for a Go match in the country.
“What really surprised me was that even young women started to pay attention to Go,” said Kim Seong-ryong, a ninth-dan player who commentated on matches. “There is no doubt that this tournament has renewed people’s interest in Go.”
The fever was so hot that it even led a legendary Go player into politics during the tournament. Cho Hun-hyun, who holds the South Korean record for most Go titles with 160, joined the ruling Saenuri Party on March 10, apparently hoping to get a proportional representation ticket in the April general elections.
It also prompted the country to build a national Go museum. South Jeolla Governor Lee Nak-yeon said last Wednesday that its provincial government will build a Go museum since the region is where Kim In, Cho Hun-hyun, Lee Se-dol and other national Go champions are from.’
Though bringing Go back to the spotlight seems to be a success, the South Korean Go community doesn’t want the Lee-Alpha Go match ending up as a one-hit wonder. It wants the event to lead to growth in the Go population in the country, especially among young students.
Positive signs are already coming out. Schools across the nation are saying they will have a Go club.
Cheomdan Middle School in Gwangju, some 330 kilometers south of Seoul, last week announced that it has founded a Go club for the first time in the region, while three schools in Cheongju, a city 130 kilometers south of Seoul, said that they will also have Go clubs no later than the first half of this year.
Gwangju Metropolitan Office of Education said that it has been already giving financial aid to schools that create Go clubs and offer scholarships to players who win national events. Go was designated as the official sport of the National Junior Sports Festival starting last year.
“Go helps students improve their concentration and calm them psychologically,” an official from the Gwangju education office said. “Because of Lee’s performance, we expect more Go-related activities from schools.”
In light of the special Lee-AlphaGo match, the Go community here would also like to see the globalization of Go. The board game has been bigger outside of Asia the last few years, but it is still mainly played by those in South Korea, Japan and China.
“I think this event has allowed Westerners to find the essence of Oriental culture,” said Hong Seok-hyun, the chairman of the KBA. “I expect to see many Go fans in Western countries after this event.”
There has been a concern that the popularity of Go will plunge as Lee lost the tournament to AlphaGo 4-1, giving the impression that Go now has been “conquered” by machines. But insiders said this won’t be a big problem, because it has nothing to do with humans falling behind computers.
“People still do the Tour de France, even though we invented a motorcycle,” said American Go Association President Andrew Okun, who was watching the whole tournament in Seoul. “We can actually use (the technology) to train and make players stronger.”
Lee Se-dol, who went to Jeju Island for vacation after the tournament, already said that his losing to a human-like algorithm won’t influence the people’s perception of Go. Despite losing the tournament, the 33-year-old did his job, proving that the AI can make mistakes and showing people how to enjoy Go.
“Of course I can lose, but since the computer will be playing the game without understanding the beauty of Go, the value of Go will remain,” Lee said on March 8 before entering the tournament against AlphaGo.’