The CEO of Google DeepMind is facing his biggest challenge to date

Lee Sedol & Demis HassabisGoogle DeepMindGoogle DeepMind CEO and world Go champion Lee Sedol.

This week, Demis Hassabis, the CEO and cofounder of artificial intelligence (AI) company DeepMind, is in South Korea hoping that an AI created in a discrete office in London’s King’s Cross will outsmart the best player in the world at a complex Chinese board game known as “Go.”

It’s a huge deal in the field of AI and potentially a landmark moment for Hassabis and DeepMind. Unlike chess, where computers have already beaten the best human players, Go has billions of possible moves (more moves than there are atoms in the universe, according to Hassabis), meaning it can’t be mastered by brute calculation.

Some of the most impressive minds at some of the biggest technology companies in the world have turned their attention to building AIs that can beat humans at Go. Namely, Facebook CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg. But it’s the 39-year-old from Finchley, North London, who is leading the charge, albeit with the help of some of DeepMind’s 200 or so employees.

Hassabis has risen to fame in the AI world since selling DeepMind, which he cofounded with Mustafa Suleyman and Shane Legg in 2012, to Google for a reported £400 million in 2014.

This week, the entrepreneur — who holds a computer science degree from Cambridge and neuroscience degree from University College London — faces what is arguably his biggest challenge to date. The self-learning “AlphaGo” algorithm he has led the development on is being pitted against Lee Sedol in a five-game Go match at the Four Seasons Hotel in Seoul. Prize money for the match stands at $1 million (£700,000).

AlphaGo has already beaten Fan Hui, the European Go champion, but the outcome of the match against Sedol is anybody’s guess at this stage.

Sedol himself is confident that he has what it takes to beat Hassabis, who was described as one of the smartest human beings on the planet by internet creator Tim Berners Lee, according to this profile published by The Guardian.

“I’m confident about this match,” said Sedol in a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday. However, after hearing Hassabis tell a room full of media how AlphaGo works, Sedol said: “I’m quite nervous so I might not have a 5-0 victory now.”

The general public will likely question the importance of developing a machine that can take on humans at a board game but Hassabis says this is all part of a bigger vision. Ultimately, he wants to apply DeepMind’s AI technology to some of the world’s biggest problems, including healthcare, climate change, and macroeconomics.

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