When AlphaGo topped the grandmaster Lee Sedol last year in Seoul, South Korea, becoming the first machine to beat a professional at the ancient game of Go, it grabbed the attention of the entire country—and beyond. This surprisingly powerful machine, built by researchers at Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence lab, also captured so many imaginations in China, the birthplace of Go, where Google says more than 60 million people watched that match from across the internet.
Now AlphaGo is playing a Chinese grandmaster here in Wuzhen, China, an ancient city near the heart of the country’s tech industry. The match between AlphaGo and Ke Jie, currently ranked number one in the world, seems like the perfect PR opportunity for a company that hopes to expand its presence in China in the years to come. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
On Tuesday, AlphaGo won the first game of this best-of-three match, a litmus test for the progress of artificial intelligence since last year’s tournament. But the audience was limited. Chinese state television did not show the event live after pulling out of the broadcast just days before, according to two people involved with the event. Meanwhile, local internet service providers, which are beholden to Chinese authorities, blocked other Chinese-language broadcasts about half-an-hour into the game. Local news outlets did cover the event, but many readers said the stories avoided using the name Google, apparently under restrictions imposed by authorities. The English-language broadcast from Wuzhen was not affected.
The atmosphere surrounding the match couldn’t be more different than the vibe of the contest in Korea, where AlphaGo was the lead story on practically every news broadcast and in every newspaper for more than a week. Dozens of journalists were on hand to cover the event in Wuzhen, but so much of the expected energy was missing, partly because Ke Jie had little chance of winning the match against an improved AlphaGo—and partly because coverage of the event was curtailed by unseen forces.
The reasons for the apparent crackdown on publicity are unclear, and Google declined to publicly comment on the situation. But it’s no secret that, like so many other American internet companies, Google has a complicated relationship with China. More than a decade ago, the company began offering various online services in the country, agreeing to obey China’s stringent censorship laws. But in 2010, after Chinese hackers burrowed into Google’s internal systems and apparently lifted information on Chinese human rights advocates from Gmail service, the company moved its Chinese-language servers to Hong Kong and lifted all censorship. In return, Chinese ISPs blocked Google’s service. Since then, the internet’s most powerful company hasn’t really had an online presence in the country.
Google has made noises about returning to China, where it still operates some offices, and this week’s AlphaGo match seemed like a chance to reboot its presence. But in China, the politics are never simple. Services like Facebook and Twitter are also unavailable here. Though some American internet companies, such as LinkedIn, have agreed to offer services that obey local laws, the Chinese internet is dominated by local companies, including giants like Alibaba, whose headquarters lies only about 50 miles from the city hosting this week’s Go match.
The other subtext: Google and the leading Chinese internet companies are part of a worldwide battle for top AI talent. Engineers at Chinese internet giant Tencent have even built their own version of AlphaGo, a machine that also very much represents the future of AI.
Google worked closely with local authorities in arranging this week’s event in Wuzhen, a historic “watertown” criss-crossed by canals, stone bridges, and traditional Chinese buildings adorned with elaborate wood carvings. The match was sponsored by the Chinese Go Association and the sports authority in Zhejiang Province, which surrounds Wuzhen. “Thanks so very much for having us, for letting us come,” Google chairman Eric Schmidt said during a speech just before the match kicked off.
In the weeks before the first game, Chinese state media actively promoted their coverage of the event. But state media pulled out two days before the match, according to two people involved in the event, who requested that their names not be shared—an indiction of how complex the political landscape in China can be to navigate, even for one of the world’s biggest companies.
This made for a strange day as the match’s first game played out. Google was holding the event in what seemed like the ideal place—the conference hall that also hosts China’s World Internet Conference, a yearly gathering of major internet companies and personalities. But the game wasn’t really available to locals over the internet itself. When a reporter asked DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis about the restrictions on live video of the event, he said he didn’t know anything about the ban. But he noted just how much media had shown interest in the match. Sixty million people in China watched the match in Korea. Now they couldn’t really watch the one in their home country.
In the end, the dynamic isn’t all that surprising, considering the messy relationship between company and country. What’s surprising is that this event is actually happening at all.