One of the most popular tropes in literature and film is that of the sentient machine becoming the master of its creator. In large part, these stories are dystopian in nature, whereby the creation either sows the seeds that result in the dominance or destruction of mankind (from Metropolis to The Terminator). Outside of the realm of fever dreams like these, some have postulated that it is the nascent field of Artificial Intelligence where their upheaval (some would say revolution) will begin. However, Greg Kohs meditative beautiful new documentary AlphaGo – which orbits around a team of silicon valley engineers trying to create a computer program that will master the ancient Chinese game of Go – turns this thesis on its head the machine serves to enhance and elevate human consciousness and creativity not destroy it.

“…uses Go as a platform to explore and comment on the human condition.”

Some 2,500 years old, “Go is the world’s oldest continuously played boardgame and in some sense, it is the simplest and most abstract,” says professional Go player Janice Kim. The rules of the game are deceptively simple: each player chooses a stone color – black or white – and then places their stones on the board in an effort to surround an opponent’s stones, thereby capturing and remove them from the board. Points are also earned for laying claim to “empty” territory by similarly fenced in open areas on the board. The person with the most territory at the end of the game is the victor. Yet, this simplicity is a cipher for mathematicians have theorized that there are more possible configurations in a game of Go than the number of atoms in the universe. On a more metaphysical level, as Director of NYU’s Game Center Frank Lantz (yes dream job exists) says in the film: “It’s not just that (people) want to understand Go. They want to understand what understanding is.” –  all of which may explain why Go aficionado/tortured mathematician Max Cohen from Darren Aronofsky’s Psychological horror flick Pi loses his proverbial marbles as he searches for that film’s great elusive truth.

For programmers, particularly those in the field of artificial intelligence research, the idea of creating a program that can beat a professional Go player has long been considered the grand challenge in the field. And this is where Kotis’ film really takes off. Following a team that has Christened themselves AlphaGo, the film provides an intimate portrait of team members as they strive to achieve this Herculean goal. The heart of this international mostly male cohort is Demis Hassabis, a bespectacled former world-class Chess prodigy who is now using the science of deep neural networks and machine learning to devise an AI program capable of defeating the world’s master Go players. Hassabis makes an interesting point that his team’s undertaking differs from that of DeepBlue, the IBM system that defeated Soviet chess grandmaster and world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, in that AlphaGo was designed not to mimic the best human players like Deep Blue but rather to teach itself and harness that most human of traits – creativity.

“Mathematicians have theorized that there are more possible configurations in a game of Go than the number of atoms in the universe…”

AlphaGo’s first opponent is 2013 – 2015 European Go champion Fan Hui. For Hui, “Go is like a mirror. I also see myself.” AlphaGo dispatches Hui in five straight games. Flabbergasted at his loss, Hui is recruited by the AlphaGo team to act much like a boxer’s sparring partner as the program and programmers prepare for their greatest challenge: World Go champion Lee Seydol of South Korea. Hui also serves as our de facto narrator and guide, serving up insights about this competition that prove both funny and prescient.

Described as the Roger Federer of Go, Sedol is a slight, intense young man who has been playing competitively some eight to nine hours a day since he was a youth. Here, the film takes a few metaphysical turns with characters opining that in Go “the truth shows itself on the board” while at the same time fueling the fire of so many of our dystopian fears – that AlphaGo’s programmers have created a machine that is not only smarter than its creators but is imbued with the ability to think and learn from its mistakes. As this battle is played out over the course of five tense days, the filmmaker navigates a tricky high wire act – avoiding a potentially repetitive and mundane tropes as the competition wears on by smartly inserting images of overwrought commentators and spectators, insights from academics and philosophers, and post-game analyses from all sides of the struggle.

“AlphaGo was designed not to mimic the best human players like Deep Blue but rather to teach itself and harness that most human of traits – creativity.”

The exhilarating score by Volker Bertelmann (aka Hauschka) – the composer behind the Oscar-nominated score for 2016’s Lion, rises and falls at all the right points, masterfully helping build and release tension. Both the editing and camera work are top-notch and manage to surmount challenges inherent in a film about a static board game by shifting from tight shots of a pensive Sedol with furrowed brow, to the team of AlphaGo programmers reacting to the move of each stone, to crowds gathered across the globe watching the match in rapt attention.

Rather than playing up the fears of man’s imminent obsolescence in the face of artificial intelligence, the filmmakers instead elevate this doc from a fairly rote “man vs. machine” story to one that uses Go as a platform to explore and comment on the human condition. From the insights of masters like Sedol and Hui, director Kotis and his team instead argue that the experience of playing against AlphaGo (whatever the outcome) does not diminish their spirit minimize but instead expands and strengthens it. As world champion Sedol says after the dust on the final match settles, “I feel thankful I’ve found the reason that I play Go.” That a machine can rekindle this fire is beautiful indeed.

AlphaGo (2017) Directed by Greg Kohs. Starring Lee Sedol , Fan Hui , Demis Hassabis, Frank Lantz, Lee Silver.

4 out of 5 stars

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