Fag Break

A meek and graceful man dressed in a loose-fitting suit paces across the roof of the Four Seasons hotel. He smokes a cigarette and watches the Seoul skyline. He inhales. Beneath his skin, the smoke stains his lungs, thickens the blood. Marking the slow, imperceptible wearing away of his being. The burden of an entire species hangs on his slight shoulders.

The man is a master. Through livestreams and televisions and retinas, through a giant screen in the city centre, sixty million people have been watching his furrowed brows. Waiting for his fingernails to pick up a piece of clamshell or slate and place it on a gridded board. Sixty million people have watched his shoulders slump as he sat back, exhaled a breath and waited for a supercomputer to make its move.

He is the world’s greatest human Go player. A boardgame spanning two millennia. Who’s range of possible plays outnumber all the atoms in the known universe. The man was Lee Sedol and he paces and inhales. But, today, he has met not only his match, but his future and his past and his inheritor. A perfect machine. Projected to lose and now undeniably defeating him. The underdog of all time.

Inside, AlphaGo scans its digital double of the board. It processes. And processes. Through past games and future projections. Pure, refined analysis. At inhuman velocity. The modern mastering the ancient. It sifts and sifts and processes.

Sedol takes a drag and considers his opponent. How it needs no rest. No calming habit or addiction. How it trawls through an artificial infinity of possible permutations. How it engorges itself on an accumulated archive of metastatic knowledge to implement the perfect move. How, even if, by some miracle, he wins, then the machine’s self-learning algorithm will have ingested his every tactic and taken a million great leaps forward in the time it will take him to finish a pack. The cigarette drops from his fingers. Sedol freezes. He thinks about going back inside. Returning to his chair. His seat. His board. Still his. For now. He steps on the fag butt and relishes the muffled hiss. Then he reaches in his pack and lights another.

Inside, AlphaGo selects. Silently. Makes the move that will end the match. End the human. Render Sedol, and all biological intelligence, obsolete. A turning point in time it cannot cherish. A coup de grace it cannot relish. Now it simply waits. And waits. And waits.

Sedol inhales. Paces. In three years he will retire from the game. He will cite AlphaGo as his main reason, calling it an unsurmountable challenge. More obstacle than opponent. More phenomena than foe. He will never compete again. But, on this hotel roof, for now, as he plays for humanity against its future, he paces and inhales. A gust of wind buffets his blazer. His skin prickles in the chill. A shudder shoots softly down his spine. Memories swell in his brain. Maybe from his childhood, when he travelled from a poor, rural island to perfect the game that once made him a genius, and still believed pizzas grew on trees.



Luke Reilly is a London-based writer whose screenwriting credits include the feature film, Small Gods, which was financed by Sovereign Films (Triangle of Sadness). He also writes essays on Medium under the pretentious (but search engine optimizable pseudonym), Eubulus Kane: medium.com/@EubulusKane