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Lee Sedol, modern-day John Henry

I suppose just about everyone in North America knows the John Henry story. In the annals of American folk tales in general and African-American folk tales more specifically it’s a big one. It’s a big one because it’s the story of the underdog. John Henry was a steel-driving man, that’s how the song goes. His job was to use a 9 pound hammer to whack a steel drill, held by his “shaker”, and this is how making a railway tunnel was done the old-school way. John Henry was flat-out the best there ever was. And then along came the steam drill. If you don’t know the story, listen to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee sing it for you…

John Henry went up against the steam drill, up against progress, up against the machine, and he was going to win, even if it killed him. He did, and it did.

Now I imagine many readers of 27th Street don’t know who Lee Sedol is. Mr. Sedol is not a folk hero, he’s a real person. He is a Korean professional player of the board game known in Korea as Baduk, in China as Wei Chi, and just about everywhere else as Go. Lee Sedol is considered to be one of the greatest Go players of the modern era. The question is, what is so significant about Lee Sedol that I’m comparing him to John Henry.

On March 9, Mr. Sedol will begin a 5 game match against a bot named AlphaGo. Back in the fall, AlphaGo beat up on European champ Fan Hui, 5 games to nothing. Fan Hui is a strong professional, but he is thought to be considerably weaker than Lee Sedol. Consider it a warm-up match.

Until AlphaGo, computers have not been able to beat strong Go players. This is a different situation than in the world of chess, where computers have been able to wipe the floor with Grandmasters for a couple decades now. Chess computers did this with brute force computing power, but brute force has not been successful in beating humans at Go. For details about how AlphaGo’s artificial intelligence has been successful at Go, I recommend you check out Nick Sibicky’s comments in a recent video shared on YouTube. Many Go players thought a computer strong enough to beat a strong pro Go player was a decade away or longer, if possible at all. After all there apparently are more possible positions in a game of Go than there are atoms in the universe.

There will be live streaming of the matches on YouTube and to be sure the games will be posted there after the fact with enough commentary for even the most ardent Go freak. As for Lee Sedol, he expects to win. Unlike John Henry of old, though, it is unlikely Mr. Sedol will die trying. The winner of the match gets $1Million. If AlphaGo wins, the money will go to charity.

I’ll be following the matches closely, and yes I’ll be cheering for Lee Sedol. I hope he kicks bot-butt!

Take it out, Furry….



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