The AI challenge
Demis Hassabis, the head of AlphaGo developer Google DeepMind, couldn’t have chosen a better contestant - Korean world Go champion Lee Se-dol - to test how far the company’s artificial intelligence (AI) program has come. He came up with the idea of what he called the “Mount Everest” for AI scientists: a match pitting his program against one of the subtlest and calmest human minds.
Before the historical best-of-five series in Seoul that ended on Tuesday, in which the machine won four matches and Lee one, an Internet search for the acronym AI delivered results about Avian influenza. Now AI has become a hot buzzword, and not about the flu. There is much hype about how far AI has evolved and how it will pave the way for the so-called fourth industrial revolution - and any country that does not pay attention to the field is going to be left behind.
The world is stupefied at how AlphaGo mastered an ancient board game by studying and processing 30 million configurations - which would take a human 1,000 years - in just five months to humble one of the world’s greatest players. Choi Yang-hee, the minister of science, ICT and future planning, said Hassabis told him that Google aspires to incorporate the AlphaGo software into smartphones within the next few years.
A processing power that digs into the so-called deep neural networks of connected machines - each equipped with graphics processing units to render not only highly graphical software but also a self-learning capacity - could bring revolutionary changes to our lives. AlphaGo is said to run on a network that spanned 176 of these graphics processing units and 1,202 central processing units. AlphaGo’s creator told Choi he was devoting his life to developing software that could exceed the power of the human mind.
The AI field is now a battlefield for multinational technology companies. Google, IBM, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook are pumping astronomical investments into the field. Google spent 33 trillion won ($27.7 billion) acquiring AI-related companies over the last 14 years. A country rich in AI technology will dominate the world in the future.
The birthplace of AI is Silicon Valley. Hassabis, who is British, sold his AI company to Google for 400 million pounds ($565 million) while remaining its CEO. He needed to access Google’s colossal network and high-performing computer processing power in order to advance his AI research.
Baidu, China’s leading Internet search provider, set up a lab in Silicon Valley devoted to AI technology and named a pioneering researcher in the field, Andrew Ng, as its chief scientist. It recruited 200 talents from around the world. Japanese carmaker Toyota also opened a research institute on AI and robotics in Silicon Valley and plans to invest $1 billion over the next five years in collaboration with Stanford University and MIT. It recruited James Kuffner, who until recently led a robotics program for Google and scientists from top universities.
Korea is nowhere in this heated race. Over the last five years, its investment in the field amounts to 18 billion won. A senior government official said that even if the government and the country’s top electronics companies, Samsung and LG, join forces, they cannot dare to compete with Google.
While we dither, applications of AI and robotics have advanced. Market research firm Gartner expects robots will be entering both the enterprise and consumer space and predicts that people will work with over three million robot bosses in two years. Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, which has taken a lead in robotic cars and smart machines, admitted that the world was “summoning the devil” with its pursuit of AI technology. The leaders are already contemplating existential problems stemming from a kind of invasion by machines.
There is no time to lose. President Park Geun-hye must announce a national agenda on AI. The government must support it. U.S. President Barack Obama has announced a “Brain” initiative by budgeting 1.3 trillion won over the next 10 years, and the European Union initiated a similar project with a similar budget. Japan has pledged over 1.6 trillion won for AI development over the next decade. As a latecomer, we must be more aggressive. Our schools must train talent for an AI-dominant world. AlphaGo was developed by a team of chess champions, gamers, computer engineers and neural scientists. If Hassabis had been born in Korea, he would have ended up being a professional gamer at best. The government, enterprise and universities all have to change.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 16, Page 31
*The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.