"AlphaGo" pits man against machine.
"AlphaGo" pits man against machine.

The man versus machine board game battle doc "AlphaGo" comes out a winner

In space. In the sky. In past, present and future Los Angeles. In video games – as well as literally inside video games. In beautifully designed modern forest getaways and in R-rated Western LARPs. Ever since the days of silent film, the movies have found new places to take the fight between man and machine – and not to send you into a tinfoil hat-crafting craze of paranoia, so has reality. In the entertaining and engaging new documentary "AlphaGo," director Greg Kohs finds the latest battleground in this epic conflict of human versus robot, this war for the future.

A board game.

Sure, maybe not the fiery robo-pocalypse hellscape you were expecting, but "AlphaGo" still packs plenty of big ideas for the future’s potential – both tantalizing and terrifying.

For years, the technology wizards at Google DeepMind have wanted to great an artificial intelligence program with one goal: to defeat a human being in a game of Go. (Have none of you seen a sci-fi movie? First, the robots dominate Chutes and Ladders – then, the world!)

Go is no simple little contest, however. It’s an ancient game of seemingly black-and-white simplicity but infinite complexity. For a computer to master the thousands upon thousands of potential moves and strategic concepts involved would be a significant step forward for A.I. – not to mention a massive humbling for the human species. And after years of high-tech tinkering and testing, the board game to end all board games finally put its pieces on the table in 2016, pitting the AlphaGo program against international champion Lee Sedol in South Korea.

For the first third of Kohs’s documentary, however, it seems like the story will be about a different earlier match, featuring the computer facing off against Fan Hui, a fellow pro Go player. Hui, with his bright voice and beaming sense of hopeful humor, even makes a perfect human foil for the cold computer algorithms on the other side of the board. However, he gets destroyed pretty quickly by AlphaGo, losing five games to none and taking the L for humanity.

Though Hui stays on as a welcome presence in the film – flipping sides, however, and helping the AlphaGo team like a god damned traitor to the human race – it’s a peculiar false start for a doc that already has to deal with the problem of making computer code playing a somewhat obscure (at least on this side of the Pacific) and complex board game cinematic. Unfortunately, especially in the early going, Kohs relies heavily on talking heads to explain what’s happening and its importance rather than getting the audience emotionally invested. Even robots likely know the rule, "Show, don’t tell."

Even if the movie stays chatty (even with all that talk, none of it is a particularly thorough explanation of Go, so Kohs has to rely on thankfully colorful commentators to fill the audience in on what anything means), "AlphaGo" eventually starts playing the right moves. Of course, it helps that the stakes of the big game are inherently tense and dramatic for any living, breathing homo sapien in the audience. After all, it’s only the honor of all of humanity at risk. But Kohs still captures Sedol’s board game battle with lively, light energy and bright enthusiasm for the discoveries on all sides. Even if the jargon behind a move or a glitch goes over one’s head, Kohs keeps the audience on board, amused and sometimes even amazed by the results – and what they mean.

More than anything, it’s those compelling ideas ­that make "AlphaGo" a winner. What happens to a person, like Fan Hui, after an inanimate device bests him at his passion, a key part of who he is? Can a computer create? The AlphaGo computer makes several moves that confound the commentators, but end up serving its strategy. But is that creativity or just cold algorithmic code going about its business? How does a human being react when faced with a machine that literally knows every move, where a mistake seems like strategy and vice versa? Can a human even beat a computer, or are humans doomed to be obsolete? And most importantly: Can a computer troll its opponent?

They’re deeply fascinating – and in some cases deeply depressing – questions, all packed inside a simple game. Early on, a talking head describes Go as a game as much about philosophy as it is about amusement – and "AlphaGo" lives up to both parts of that description.

And while the computer may impress in the game, it’s the humanity that comes out on top in Kohs’s film, making an oddly sweet and thought-provoking human argument for artificial intelligence. After all, regardless of the final score, what is AlphaGo but an incredible achievement in human ingenuity and genius?

Meanwhile Lee Sedol and the entire globe comes away from the match tested like never before, complete with a whole new perspective on one of the planet’s oldest games. Maybe instead of humanity’s greatest rival, as Hui ponders near the film’s end, A.I. could turn into our greatest tool, testing and expanding the human mind in ways it can’t even imagine right now. That is, probably just before they crush our puny human skulls beneath their cruel metal claw feet.

It may be the end of the world as we know it, but thanks to "AlphaGo" and its compelling, thought-provoking story, I feel fine.

"AlphaGo": *** out of ****

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