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Crazy Stone, take on grandmaster Norimoto Yoda in the game of Go. TOKYO, JAPAN — Rémi Coulom is sitting in a rolling desk chair, hunched over a battered Macbook laptop, hoping it will do something no machine has ever done. That may take another ten years or so, but the long push starts here, at Japan’s University of Electro-Communications. Spectators are gathered in front of an old projector screen in the corner, and a ragged camera crew is preparing to broadcast the tournament via online TV, complete with live analysis from two professional commentators. They aren’t looking at each other. They’re focused on the two computers in front of them. Crazy Stone and Nomitan are locked in a game of Go, the Eastern version of chess.
If Crazy Stone can win and advance to the finals, it will earn the right play one of the best human Go players in Japan. Computers match or surpass top humans in chess, Othello, Scrabble, backgammon, poker, even Jeopardy. In 1994, machines took the checkers crown, when a program called Chinook beat the top human. Then, three years later, they topped the chess world, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer besting world champion Garry Kasparov. Invented over 2500 years ago in China, Go is a pastime beloved by emperors and generals, intellectuals and child prodigies. 1 And like chess, it’s a two-person war game.
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Rémi Coulum is part of a small community of computer scientists hoping to solve this riddle. Every March, the world’s most dedicated Go programmers gather at the University of Electro-Communications to compete in the UEC Cup, a computer Go tournament that, uniquely, rewards two finalists with matches against a “Go sage,” the equivalent of a chess grandmaster. Organizers dub these machine-versus-man matches the Densei-sen, or “Electric Sage Battle. At this year’s UEC Cup, Coulom’s Crazy Stone is the favorite. On the first day of the competition, the software program went undefeated, which earned it top seed in today’s 16-member single-elimination bracket and a bye in the first round. Now, it’s the second round, and Viennot, a relative newcomer to the computer Go scene, tells me he’ll be happy if his program just puts up a good fight. Nomitan uses many of Rémi’s tricks, but I don’t think it will be enough,” he says.
The computer screens in front of Coulom and Viennot display statistics that show the relative confidence of each program. Although the match has just begun, Crazy Stone is already 58 percent sure it will prevail. Oddly, Nomitan’s confidence level is about the same. When I point this out to Coulom and Viennot, they both laugh. You can’t trust these algorithms completely,” explains Viennot. They are always a little over-confident. The official commentary doesn’t start until the final match, but as the second round progresses, a small crowd forms around commentator Michael Redmond to hear his thoughts.
The charismatic Redmond, an American, is one of very few non-Asian Go celebrities. He began playing professionally in Japan at the age of 18, and remains the only Westerner to ever reach 9-dan, the game’s highest rank. Tesuji means something like “clever play,” and Nomitan’s tesuji are giving Crazy Stone serious trouble. With the game nearly halfway done, Crazy Stone is only 55 percent confident, which means it’s even money. After a few more turns, another professional named O Meien pronounces Nomitan the leader. As other games in the room finish, the crowd in front of the projector screen grows larger and louder.
From the sound of it, Crazy Stone’s prospects are increasingly bleak. Crazy Stone’s moves can be incomprehensible. Most people in the room take the pros like O Meien at their word. We have to, since games of Go are often so complex that only extremely high-level players can understand how they’re progressing. But Coulom identifies as a programmer more than a player, which allows him to remain calm in the face of professional skepticism. Crazy Stone makes a number of moves that prompt murmurs of approval from the crowd.