The historic match between South Korea’s top Go player Lee Se-dol and Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo has drawn worldwide attention, with AlphaGo prevailing in their Go series that concluded earlier this week.
Yet only a few are aware that North Korea used to rule the world stage with its own Go artificial intelligence program despite its short Go history.
Go was introduced to North Korea in the 1960s to the 1970s when Korean residents in Japan “immigrated” to the North on a massive scale, in search of their family roots and the “utopian” socialist life they had been told of in the North. It was first regarded as a luxurious hobby from Japan. Only a few elites were able to afford tools to play the game.
‘My daughter started it to get “trained” to be smarter’
“I was a university professor in Pyongyang and I had to pay a monthly wage to purchase a board,” said Kim Heung-kwang of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS), whose daughter started Go at age 6.
“By then Go was only known to a few people who were interested in their children’s education. My daughter started it to get ‘trained’ to be smarter. She continued it through age 10,” Kim told NK News.
Go gradually grew in popularity during the 1980s, as many people believed that children, like Kim’s daughter, would grow smarter playing it. In 1989, Kim Jong Il encouraged it to be played nationwide. The Choson Go Association was founded in the same year. The next year the Go Championship took place in Pyongyang, and the state provided support to talented Go players such as Cho Dae-won and Cho Sae-byul.
EUNBYUL: NOW AND THEN
With popularity of Go established, computer software to play the game was invented in 1997, developed by five technicians from the Korean Computer Center (KCC). The software, called Eunbyul, won first prize at the Computer Go World Championships by Japan’s Foundation for Fusion Of Science and Technology (FOST) in 1998 and 1999.
Eunbyul dominated the World Computer Go Championships in Gifu, Japan starting in 2003. Meanwhile, South Korean company 4OneBiz imported the software from North Korea in 2006, introducing the North Korean software through South-North economic cooperation. It was a successful move in a time when relations between the two Koreas were at a relative high point.
But the zeal for Eunbyul cooled by the end of the 2000s. Eunbyul competed at the world championships every year with an upgraded version until its name vanished from the competition list. Choi Sung, a professor from Namseoul University told NK News that Japan, the championship-hosting country, felt “burdened” to invite North Korea because of its bad relationships with its neighbors.
Also, the Go game was not as sensational in the South as the importing company expected, with the Eunbyul service stopping by 2008. In 2010, inter-Korean relations plummeted to depths unseen in decades when the Cheonan naval vessel ship sank. The South’s May 24 Measures were soon imposed to block money from flowing into the North. Many companies that earned from peaceful economic cooperation between the South and the North suffered heavily. 4OneBiz shut down, leaving no trace.
But Eunbyul 2010 would be introduced to Seoul by Kim Chan-woo, an artificial intelligence expert and Go player.
Eunbyul is now in service on the smartphone app market thanks to Kim Chan-woo’s collaboration with a mobile game company. Eunbyul now cannot be traced to the North of the border, but is instead a normal smartphone game. Yet, as AlphaGo rises as the top Go software thanks to its artificial intelligence, Kim Heung-kwang’s words remind of how dominant Eunbyul was.
“In the Go world, Lee Se-dol of the South rules as a player. Eunbyul of the North used to, as a software,” said Kim.
Featured Image: NK TECH
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