Go Champion Retires After Realizing AI Is 'an Entity That Cannot Be Defeated’

Lee Se-Dol after a match against Google’s AI program
Photo: Getty

One of the world’s top human champions of Go has decided to retire from playing the strategy game professionally, citing AI as a reason he feels he can no longer compete.

South Korean Go player Lee Sedol gained international notoriety in March 2016 when he took on Google Deepmind’s artificial intelligence AlphaGo. The machine won four out of five matches against Sedol, proving that AI is advanced enough to beat humanity at one of its most complex abstract strategy games.

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Sedol did not hide his sense of failure after his losses. “I don’t know how to start or what to say today, but I think I would have to express my apologies first,” he said after the third match. “I do apologize for not being able to satisfy a lot of people’s expectations. I kind of felt powerless.”

After the final blow, Sedol said, “I have come to question the classical beliefs a little bit, so I have more study to do.”

It seems that the match has led him down an existential path. Yonhap News Agency reported that on November 19, Sedol submitted his resignation notice to the Korea Baduk Association (KBA) that regulates professional Go competitors in South Korea, putting an end to the 36-year-old’s 24-year Go career.

Sedol said he retired from playing because he has accepted he can never beat AI. “With the debut of AI in Go games, I’ve realized that I’m not at the top even if I become the number one through frantic efforts,” Lee told Yonhap. “Even if I become the number one, there is an entity that cannot be defeated.”

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He added that his decision was also inspired by his dispute with the KBA over how the organization uses membership fees. According to Yonhap, Sedol is suing the organization for his fees.

Sedol plans to celebrate his retirement next month with one final game against an AI Go competitor—HanDol, built by South Korea tech firm NHN Entertainment. Sedol will start the game with a slight handicap.

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“Even with a two-stone advantage, I feel like I will lose the first game to HanDol,” he told Yonhap, already dejected. “I wanted to play comfortably against HanDol as I have already retired, though I will do my best.”

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Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo