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.
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.
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.
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.