Go grandmaster and 18-time world champion Lee Sedol released a non-fungible token (NFT) commemorating his most famous game on May 10 on OpenSea.
In March 2016, Lee Sedol put his reputation and career on the line by playing against an artificial intelligence (AI) program, Google’s AlphaGo. Between March 9 and 15, Lee played a five-game match of the ancient strategy game against AlphaGo, which was developed by Google DeepMind, in what’s known as the Google DeepMind Challenge Match.
Lee won the fourth game and remains the only human to ever beat AlphaGo. The NFT symbolizes his legendary victory. Lee retired from professional competition in 2019, citing the increasing dominance of AI as his main reason.
Lee’s NFT was released on May 10 via the digital marketplace OpenSea. NFTs are deployed on the Ethereum blockchain using the ERC-721 standard. They’ve been adopted by everyone from professional athletes to artists and represent a new realm of digital collectibles. The most expensive NFT to be sold to date is a token of digital artist Beeple’s “EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS.”
Lee met with CoinDesk Korea on May 4 to discuss the NFT release, his philosophical approach to Go, his views on blockchain technology, and his match against AlphaGo.
“I’ve always been interested in new technology that has a profound impact on society,” Lee said. “I didn’t really know that much about NFTs before this project, but the more research I did the more interested I became.”
Lee said he was fascinated by the idea of making a digital record of a symbolic moment in his 25-year career and immortalizing it on a blockchain.
“NFTs are fascinating because they become digital symbols of historic moments,” he said. “No matter how many people saw and remember the last shot taken by Michael Jordan, until the actual moment is memorialized as a symbolic item it exists exclusively in people’s memories. You can leave a permanent record of something as a photograph or video, but I think NFTs have an entirely different sentiment behind them.”
Lee made his professional debut in 1995 at age 12, becoming the fifth youngest South Korean player to play Go professionally. He was an aggressive player that developed a reputation for being unconventional and exceptionally creative.
Lee describes himself as being part of “the last generation that viewed Go as an art, as opposed to a competition, although he admits that even most of his generation started to view the game as a sport, with the sole objective being victory.
To Lee, however, there is more to the game than just winning or losing. Each game is an interaction, a sort of intellectual dance, between the two players that takes on its own significance.
“I played professionally for 25 years, but not once did I ever witness or play a match that made me think, ‘Now this is how you play Go!’ In short, I never found that elusive white whale or holy grail,” he said.
Lee described the concept of a perfect match that deserves to be immortalized as pure art, whether you view it from the perspective of the winner or loser.
“But in the end it remains a figment in my dreams,” he said.
Although Lee’s fourth game against AlphaGo doesn’t meet his standard for “art,” it’s still a historic event: the first and last time a human defeated Google’s computerized mastermind.
“You have a better chance of winning the powerball lottery in America than seeing a human beat AI in Go again,” he said, citing the exponential rate of growth and development of AI technology.
Reflecting on his retirement, Lee said his match against AlphaGo was the main reason for leaving the scene.
“I’d always played with the goal of being the very best, but once I realized that I was no longer the best, I really couldn’t see the point of playing professionally anymore,” he said.
“To me, it was tormenting to play knowing that there was a ‘master’ out there that I couldn’t beat,” he recalled.
Games as art
Lee’s hope is that his NFT will encourage more people to adopt his perspective of viewing Go not as a sport but as art.
“When you look at a game record [known as “gibo” in Korean] and examine all the individual moves, you can picture the atmosphere and mood surrounding the game. In that sense, each gibo can be viewed as a piece of art,” he said..”
Lee expressed his intention to play a game of Go with the person that wins the NFT auction.
“I think it’ll be fun. It doesn’t matter whether the person knows a lot about Go or not,” he said.
When asked what he’s going to do with the proceeds of his NFT, he laughed and admitted he wasn’t sure.
“I can’t give you an answer right now, but I am excited that the payment is going to be in ether,” he said.
“To me, it seems like the majority of actual cryptocurrency transactions are conducted in ether,” he said. “Even other cryptocurrencies are often created on Ethereum-based blockchains. At this point, Ethereum serves as a lifeline for the blockchain ecosystem.”
The auction for Lee’s NTF on OpenSea concludes on May 18, at 10 am (Korean Standard Time).
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