(Bloomberg) -- Google’s latest effort to thaw relations with China involves an artificial intelligence pow-wow -- and a few games of Go.
Years after Beijing locked out virtually every Alphabet Inc. service, executive chairman Eric Schmidt and a cadre of mid-level Chinese government officials kicked off a summit in the historic canal-laced town of Wuzhen Tuesday: a rare instance of the search leader working in tandem with the country’s bureaucrats at a high-profile public event. Google experts and prominent local academics will exchange notes and host discussions but the centerpiece will be a contest between DeepMind’s so-far undefeated AlphaGo system and Ke Jie, local champion of the 2,500-year-old strategy board game Go.
Google’s absence from China -- a country it initially withdrew from amid fears of censorship and cyber-attacks -- remains the biggest gap in its dominance of global search and video. While Android is the country’s most popular mobile software and it sells advertising, other services including search, Gmail, apps and maps are barred by the mainland’s firewall. Speculation persists however that it now wants back into the world’s largest internet arena, starting with partnerships with local Android app stores or its searchable database of academic knowledge, Google Scholar.
“It’s a pleasure to be back in China, a country that I admire a great deal,” Schmidt told assembled dignitaries and industry executives. “What you see before you is an extraordinary opportunity to change the world.”
Schmidt’s tone was markedly different from 2010, when Google declared it was pulling out of the country because it would no longer self-censor content for Chinese users -- something Beijing requires of all media to maintain stability. Officials promptly accused the company of violating agreements made before entering the market. Google also said its systems had been hacked from within China, while Beijing denied involvement. The U.S. giant then began redirecting search users to Hong Kong before the government eventually blocked that entirely, helping competitor Baidu Inc. solidify its domestic lead.
Internet heavyweights make no secret of the fact they want to penetrate the world’s second largest economy. It remains a rigidly controlled regime that bars Facebook and Twitter and aids the rise of domestic champions such as Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
The event Schmidt’s presiding over is held at the same venue the government hosts its annual World Internet Conference, to promote its own perspectives on the web. The summit marks the latest in a series of efforts to re-engage China: in 2016, Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai said the company wanted to be back serving local users, and it holds regular events in various cities to woo developers. In 2015, Google announced its first direct investment in a Chinese company since pulling out, as it backed local smartwatch and AI software developer Mobvoi Inc.
This time round, Google and its DeepMind AI unit is also appealing in no small way to local sentiment.
AlphaGo made headlines last year after winning a five-match tournament against Lee Sedol, considered the world’s best player of Go over the past decade. The widely covered contest provoked discussion on social media about whether an AI system could beat a player from China --- the nation that spawned the game several millennia ago. Ke declared at the time a machine could never defeat a true Chinese master, though he’s since lost a number of casual online matches to Google’s AI.
On Tuesday, the machines again prevailed, beating the 19-year-old Go prodigy in less time than anticipated. Despite national pride at stake, few Chinese viewers followed the systematic dismantling of the reigning champion, since the match wasn’t available on major social media or streaming sites such as Youku despite a flurry of questions from anxious users. Google’s own livestream of the event was blocked within China.
“AlphaGo is like a god of Go players,” he told reporters after the game. “I knew I would lose so I had some bitter smiles on my face,” he said, noting that the series in Wuzhen would be the last time he’d play against AI.
AlphaGo, which on Tuesday used fewer computing resources than during its effort in Seoul, can build on its reputation if it goes on to take Ke Jie in all scheduled games. Its success has astounded experts, who thought it would take as much as a decade before AI could beat top-ranked professional players of the game. While its rules are simple -- players battle for territory by placing white or black stones on a 19-by-19 grid of squares -- it’s regarded as far more complex than chess, by an order of magnitude of 10 followed by 99 zeros.
AlphaGo’s victory in Seoul positioned Google as a leader in next-generation super-smart computing. The search giant now uses AI in a range of products -- automatically writing emails, recommending YouTube videos and helping cars drive themselves.
Google hopes to showcase the evolution of machine intelligence this week in Wuzhen, Demis Hassabis, chief executive officer and and co-founder of Google DeepMind, wrote in a recent blog post. The aim of the forum is to discuss how machine-learning methods behind AlphaGo can be useful in grappling with real-world issues, such as energy consumption.
“What Google and Alphabet have brought are all of the projects that we’ve been doing, to work on artificial intelligence,” Schmidt told the conference.
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