Documentarian Greg Kohs has a history of tracking very human stories. He did so in his 2008 film Song Sung Blue about a couple who were a Neil Diamond tribute act, and he did so in his last outing The Great Alone too.
For AlphaGo, however, he was guided initially down a very different path. In this instance, he was employed to document the Google sponsored DeepMind team as they developed A.I. software that would try to unravel the most complex board game ever devised (yes, more so than chess): the 3,000-year-old Chinese game, ‘Go’. A board game that consists merely of a grid and some black and white stones, Go has more possibilities than there are atoms in the universe. Mastery of the game is seen as a huge marker of human intelligence and it has long proved a problem for A.I. developers.
As Koh charted the endeavours of the team he quickly came to the realisation that there was a bigger story lurking. The DeepMind project arranged a best-of-7 match against the revered champion of the game, the South Korean, Lee Sedol. It would garner international attention and would prove to unleash a series of significant, broader questions about humanity and the human brain. AlphaGo is the name of the software and the name of this compelling film.
It is a work that has much in common with Benjamin Ree’s film on chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen in Magnus, whilst also prompting unique questions of its own. It also takes a timely temperature check of an accelerating field that could provide the greatest degree of change in our day-to-day existence since the Industrial Revolution.
Told in an adeptly measured fashion, there is a forward momentum to AlphaGo that unfolds much like a thriller. The fact that the entertainment factor is not pursued in expense of the educational angle is to Koh’s credit. It would be very easy for this to be imbalanced in some sort of pursuit of trying to be ‘all things to all people’, but it sails along impressively. The unexpected also appears during the course of the taut 90-minute documentary: tears well up during the course of what becomes a David v Goliath-esque battle.
AlphaGo thrusts questions onto the viewer and prompts a set of sensations that are hard to shake off. In the process, we find an essential documentary that demands to be viewed by as wide an audience as possible. After all, it is courting a topic that affects all of humanity: each and every one of us.