China's Great Firewall Leaves Google With a Dry Stream During Man-vs.-Machine Showdown

By Liza Lin and Alyssa Abkowitz Features Dow Jones Newswires

WUZHEN, China--The event was billed as a battle pitting man against machine. Yet the rematch between the world champion in the ancient strategy game of Go, Ke Jie of China, and artificial-intelligence player AlphaGo also offered Alphabet Inc.'s Google, the machine's owner, the chance to raise its profile in China seven years after it abandoned its search business here.

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However, as the first game began Tuesday, there was one hitch: Chinese audiences were largely unable to watch the live stream of the event on Alphabet's Google and YouTube websites, both of which have been blocked in the country since 2010 after the U.S. company refused to submit to government censorship.

On social media, Chinese Go fans expressed disappointment that the matches weren't live-streamed on sites they could view without using virtual private networks, or VPNs, that can circumvent the country's strict internet filters, known as the Great Firewall.

"What a pity and this could be such a good chance to promote this ancient game originated from China," one user said on China's Twitter-like platform Weibo.

"Why can't a Go game be broadcasted? I don't get this," said another user.

A large entourage of Alphabet officials are here for the five-day event, including Eric Schmidt, the company's executive chairman. But they were hard-pressed to explain the event's lack of domestically accessible streaming, which has become ubiquitous in China..

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"There is a lot of media interest so I'm hoping people will get to see this on various channels, however they need to do that," said Demis Hassabis, the chief executive and a co-founder of DeepMind, the Google subsidiary that created AlphaGo.

There were originally plans to stream the event live in China, but they fell through for reasons that weren't immediately clear, according to people with knowledge of the event.

One popular internet portal, Sohu.com, declined to say why it didn't live-stream the match. A representative said the site was still devoting extensive "words and pictures" to the event.

Shaun Rein, the founder of China Market Research Group, called it a "missed opportunity" for Google to build cachet in China, given the buzz around the game and the fact that people under the age of 30 are avid consumers of live-streaming video here.

Hua Xueming, leader of the China National Go team, found at least one silver lining: Not seeing the match, she said, lends more of an air of mystery to it.

Go was invented around 2,500 years ago in China and remains popular across East Asia. The rules are simple: Players take turns placing black and white stones on a grid, seeking to capture patches of territory by surrounding them. However, the game has so many possible moves that programming a computer to take on a human opponent had long been one of the biggest challenges in artificial intelligence.

Last year, AlphaGo beat South Korea's top player in a match that was streamed online and watched by an estimated 200 million viewers, according to DeepMind's website.

The match between 19-year-old Mr. Ke and AlphaGo was the first of a series of three games that is scheduled to end Saturday. Mr. Ke stands to win about $1.5 million if he can beat AlphaGo, which previously bested him in a set of games early this year.

Tuesday's game was watched by hundreds in a conference center in the eastern Chinese city of Wuzhen. Mr. Ke started the match calmly, playing moves similar to AlphaGo's strategy in the past and pensively fingering his black playing beads before placing them on the board.

Still, as the match progressed and as AlphaGo's attacks intensified, he cupped his chin with his palms and stared intently at the board.

More than four hours later, the game was over. AlphaGo had narrowly won the game by half a point.

Write to Liza Lin at liza.lin@wsj.com and Alyssa Abkowitz at alyssa.abkowitz@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 23, 2017 08:47 ET (12:47 GMT)