Tencent Software Beats Go Champ, Showing China’s AI Gains

IN MARCH 2016, Alphabet’s DeepMind research group set a milestone in artificial intelligence when its AlphaGo program defeated professional Go player Lee Sedol, then-fifth-ranked in the world, at the complex board game Go.

Now China’s Tencent is claiming a milestone of its own in Go—and China’s ambitions in artificial intelligence. Last week, the company’s Fine Art program defeated China’s top professional Ke Jie, despite giving him a significant head start. Ke recently slipped to number two in the world, after holding the top spot for three years.

Fine Art’s victory won notice in the world of Go because it helps illustrate the gulf that has opened between human and machine players of the complex boardgame.

But it also highlights a shrinking gulf—between AI capabilities in the US and China. In a detailed national strategy for AI released last summer, China set a goal of drawing level with America by 2020, and pulling ahead by 2030. Central, state, and municipal governments are directing money towards AI research and companies.

Tencent, whose offerings span from messaging to payments and music, was named to a “national team” for AI by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology in November, alongside four other tech giants. Greg Allen, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says the company’s Go program shows the US should take China’s technological ambitions seriously. “Fine Art is yet more proof of the stunning progress China has made in AI technology,” he says.

China’s big AI push was partly spurred by AlphaGo’s victory in 2016. Professors who advised the Chinese government on the AI plan told the New York Times that Alphabet’s achievement was a “Sputnik moment” in which officials realized they lagged the US in a technology with broad commercial and military applications.

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