Innovation

Learn to play Go, the world's oldest and most strategic game

The game of Go offers a mix of elegance and complexity that's tailor made for business tech professionals.

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Image: SmartGo

"The novice fears ko, but the master embraces it."

  • Go Proverb

In 2016 Google's AlphaGo—an app powered by the company's DeepMind artificial intelligence—defeated human Go master Lee Sedol. The historic match demonstrated the growing power of artificial intelligence and helped connect the ancient game with a mainstream audience. Go is loved and studied by computer scientists, business leaders, and politicians because the game balances elegance with complexity.

Much of Go's appeal is in the game's ability to provoke thought that inspires and guides action outside the game. Go's strategic and tactical elements appealed to and informed China's military and political leaders, who packaged and exported the lessons of Go as proverbs. These proverbs—tutorials that explain how specific game elements work—serve as real-life metaphors and helped the game grow rapidly.

SEE: Research: Automation and the future of IT jobs (Tech Pro Research)

The name "Go," or wei ch'i in Chinese means "to surround." Players carve out territory by surrounding each other using black and white stones placed on line intersections—the "star point"—of a 19x19 grid. The basic concepts are easy to grasp, but the number of possible moves (2.082 × 10^170 to be precise) is staggering.

The AI's ability to master Go's complexity roused developer Anders Kierulf. "I was very impressed by what Google has done with deep neural networks and reinforcement learning, especially how they have bootstrapped their learning. Starting with 100,000 game records, learning to predict moves, [then] using move prediction to generate a dataset of 30 million independent game positions [is impressive]. Rinse and repeat, and you get improved learning."

Kierulf is a technology veteran who spent his career as a Microsoft lead on PowerPoint. He also has more than 20 years of Go experience, and his career was informed by key parallels between technology, business, and the game. Adaptability and trade-offs are familiar to technology teams, for example, and are "a concept that's very familiar to Go players: being flexible, and not getting attached to a particular piece of 'territory.' Or, forcing moves: play a move to force the opponent to decide which path to take before they have the knowledge to make the best decision, then take advantage of the decision they made."

Learning Go has benefits for technologists and entrepreneurs, and Kierulf knows the fundamental connection between Go and business because Go is his business. Today he maintains SmartGo, a hand-built, cross-platform Go application. "I think a lot of [Go] concepts translate to the business world," he said. "Risk management is such an integral part of the game of Go. Your goal is to win, and maximizing your chances of winning do not necessarily mean maximizing the outcome of every battle. Sometimes, intentionally settling for a bit less may be better if it reduces unknowns and makes your overall win more predictable."

Go is simple and fun to learn. If you're a Windows, Mac, or iOS user Kierulf's SmartGo is a worthwhile investment.

SmartGo Desktop - Windows and Mac

Though the Mac beta version feels more slick than its Windows counterpart, both versions of the desktop software are powerful and comprehensive. New Go players may be confused but can easily ignore large feature set and number of customization options. Starting a new game against a computer simulation or on a private server is a snap. The application stores game records locally, and the built-in guidance system can be dialed up or down depending on skill level. The real treat is the thousands of open source Go matches included in the application. It's easy and educational to queue up, then sit back and watch a historic match.

SmartGo Kifu - iPad

SmartGo's iPad application is robust. Like the desktop app, players can easily start new games against computer AI. The tutorial helps new players learn important strategies, and there are hundreds of skill-based scenarios. The application also includes historic games and a comprehensive book library.

SmartGo Player - iPhone

Go requires a large playing area, and the space limitations of a smartphone often limit tactical board games. SmartGo Player navigates users through a magnified game board and allows users to zoom in and out of tactical locations. The app also highlights skill challenges and provides shared access to books stored on the Kifu iPad app.

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About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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