Google’s DeepMind chalks up AI landmark after beating Go world champion Lee Sedol

A notable moment in the development of artificial intelligence (AI) happened today after DeepMind — the London-based company owned by Google — defeated Go world champion Lee Sedol using its technology.

In the first of a five match series held in Seoul, Korea, today, AlphaGo gained an early advantage after forcing Lee to concede the game with less than 29 minutes left on the clock. The series, which concludes next Tuesday, is being broadcast live on YouTube with a $1 million prize for the winner.

The progression of AI is marked by victories against top players in many strategy games. Deep Blue defeated Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997, IBM’s Watson won Jeopardy! in 2011, but the strategy and intellectual depth of Go — a centuries-old East Asian game — has provided the stiffest challenge to AI creators, as Google itself has acknowledged.

DeepMind, which was acquired by Google for over $500 million two years ago, created its own program specifically for the game: AlphaGo. It triumphed against European champion Fan Hui last October, the first time an AI had beaten a human opponent in Go, but 33-year-old Lee — a Go legend and nine-dan pro — is the toughest opponent on the planet.

Speaking after the win against Fan Hui last year, DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis explained that AlphaGo’s development is ongoing since it refines it game techniques by itself:

AlphaGo is now going beyond — hopefully, eventually — what even the best humans in this area can do. It’s quite an amazing feeling to see what new things it’s going to invent, within the constraints of the game of Go. I guess we feel a lot of affinity with the system we’ve built, especially because of the way it’s been built — it has learned, we’ve trained it in some sense, and it’s playing in quite a human-like style. And it’s different from a program you’ve hand-crafted where you know all the nuances of what you can do: here it has picked up things for itself, so it’s amazing to see the kind of capabilities it has learned.

We’ll see what lessons Lee took from the first match up this Thursday when the second game is scheduled. You can follow live via the DeepMind YouTube channel.