Static shot, interior. The view shows a length of empty corridor, ending in a half-open door beyond which can be glimpsed a small bathroom, of the type found in Japanese-styled apartments. The walls are whitewashed, the ceilings relatively low. A window is set high on the opposing wall of the bathroom, and the morning sun is shining directly through it into the lens, in such a way as to cause over-exposure. When the camera operator shifts his grip lens flare briefly obscures the scene. There is an impression of wavering leaf-shade outside.
VOICE, OFF-CAMERA: On this week's episode, join us and our team of intrepid adventurers as we investigate the daily life of the elusive Touya Akira. Now the Touya is a relatively rare, relatively shy species and we've been lying in wait for this specimen, so we must make a careful approach. First, let's have a view of its native habitat—
Panning shot to the right, showing a closed door, a low, cluttered bookcase. The camera lingers for a few seconds on the ajar door of a bedroom, zooms in on the corner of a neatly made bed – all that can be seen – and out again almost before the lens refocusses. The camera moves back to the left, jerkily as the operator is advancing down the corridor at the same time.
VOICE, OFF-CAMERA: Silence. We're on the trail.
The camera pans to reveal the living room of the apartment, to which is attached a kitchenette. The room is lived-in, but neatly ordered; there are more bookcases, a TV set, scattered seat cushions. Framed certificates and a calligraphed scroll hang from the walls. The floors are covered with bamboo matting.
A young man is sitting at a table that evidently doubles as both dining area and writing desk. He is intent on a sheet of paper lying before him, and a goban by his right elbow. At irregular intervals he plays a stone and makes the required captures, of black or white, in turn. He's dressed in nearly the same colours: charcoal-grey slacks, white button-down shirt. His hair is chin-length, not quite reaching his collar. The camera captures him in quarter profile.
VOICE, OFF-CAMERA (whispering): There it is. The Touya. It's relaxing in its lair; we must try not to startle it.
The camera closes in on the young man's face in a series of jerky zooms, as if approximating stealth. The subject glances up – possibly at the whirring noise – and away again immediately, as if the observer did not deserve further scrutiny.
VOICE, OFF-CAMERA (a little louder): The sun is still low on the Eastern horizon. Soon it will be time for the Touya to forage. It will sally forth from its home in search of... nuts... and... berries.
The young man looks up again. This time his gaze lingers.
YOUNG MAN: What are you doing with that?
He stands up. The camera zooms out quickly.
VOICE, OFF-CAMERA: The Touya sniffs the air. It has scented us. Now it approaches with its characteristic galumphing gait—
YOUNG MAN: Give me that, you moron—
VOICE, OFF-CAMERA: Hey, see, he's laughing. What you're seeing is very rare, very special foot—ohshi—
More laughter. The young man reaches out toward the camera, and the operator steps back to avoid it. The frame jerks wildly; for a heartbeat it's pointed at the ceiling. Then the screen goes dark.
I met this guy through net go once who told me he worshipped the god of digital warfare. I've forgotten what it was, but he even had a name for him. The god of digital warfare. So I asked him, how exactly do you worship the god of digital warfare? What do you do? And he said, from time to time I sacrifice to him in my heart. When I'm playing an MMORPG and I log onto the server, I say to him, "O glorious and all-mighty Wossface, today I will sacrifice a hundred valiant warriors to you, and spill their pixellated blood on the ground in honour of your name!" And then I go out and grind until I've killed a hundred guys. But you can't get wiped, and you can't stop before you've made the count, because the god of digital warfare is unforgiving of failure.
Yeah, well, you laugh because it's pretty funny. But I've been thinking about it lately, because of 'Sai'.
Do you figure, every time two people play a game of net go, they're worshipping 'Sai'?
It creeps me out to think about it.
I don't know if Touya made 'Sai', or programmed it, or whatever. I don't really believe it. I mean, I'm sure other people have told you this, but someone or something called 'Sai' had already appeared online before. It was a huge deal at the time because he or she or it was playing net go at an international tournament title level and nobody could figure out who it was. Touya-sensei, the old Meijin, spent years looking for Sai's true identity. And that was more than two decades ago, when we were kids. Touya was a smart guy but he couldn't have been that smart. In any case he never even got into all that stuff until the accident. After.
Yeah, call me a skeptic if you want. Isumi-san says Touya must have named his program after the first 'Sai', but I don't know why he would have. I think it's a newer version of the same thing.
Twice, maybe three times?
I played Shindou more times than I can count, though.
You can read kifu, right? These ones you brought with you?
Yeah, we can talk about that.
This is the first competition match Touya played after the accident. Yeah, I recognize it. It'd be hard not to, he was a complete mess. I honestly thought I'd have to go over there and kick his ass. Like, if you need to take time off, take the time off, do you think Shindou would be happy if he saw you flog yourself this way – that sort of idea. In the end I didn't. My old lady sent me round with all this food she made, huge pile of Tupperware.
He was never really – you know? When we were kids he was like a legend you'd pass in the corridors at the Institute, and we'd all rib Shindou because he said Touya Akira was his rival at go. But by that point he was a friend. Or I thought of him as a friend. He wasn't what you might call an approachable person but you assumed they came as a pair, or something, after a while. They bitched at each other like old marrieds.
No, I never went back there. He moved afterward, in any case.
That's the next one. You see the rest: he played really badly for a month or two, then he improved, and by the end of the year he was back where he started and moving up in the rankings. But after that he never really... I mean, we thought he would take the Juudan title from Ogata that year. Him or Shindou.
Yeah, that's the word.
Apart from the obvious? It's all on these sheets of paper anyway. I don't even know if he talked to anyone about it, you'd have to ask at that go parlour his family runs. Or someone like Ashiwara-san. He stopped returning my calls after a while.
If you tell me that's what he was doing the entire time then it makes sense, I guess.
Something finally lit a fire under him that year, though. You could tell. When I saw his first kifu from the Meijin preliminaries I thought—
Yeah. Yeah, the brain works in funny ways, doesn't it.
TK: There's this concept that Shindou-kun would talk about, from time to time. He... [pauses, then laughs] That is, you'd have to get him pretty drunk. And he never brought it up if Touya-san was at the table. He came across as an open book most of the time, you know, one of those sunny, straightforward people, but he really wasn't always... [pause] Basically it's the idea that God – not so much a god, of any particular religion, but – whatever intelligence it was that created the universe.
MH: The Maker of all things.
TK: Precisely. The Maker of all things – that the Maker of all things is a go player. But He's lonely, because He has no one to play with. [laughs] So He created the world, in all its manifest glory, and He created humans to inhabit the world, and set them free. And then He waited.
MH: For a human player to appear who can challenge Him?
TK: No, no – not like that.
MH: I was about to say it's like the plot of a video game. Or a shounen manga.
TK: Very Shindou-kun. [they both laugh] No... the task is for humanity itself. So that's everyone. The idea is that, every time two people play a game, they learn a little. Their ability to play is refined. And the knowledge is always there. The next time they play each other – or anyone else – they use that knowledge. Other people study their kifu and learn something as well. And globally, little by little, step by step, the game itself improves. It gets closer to the perfect game, if one can imagine such a thing. The perfect move for any given board.
MH: The game as played by God.
TK: That's right. The terminology for this, the perfect move, is what's called "the Hand of God". It's actually a very old idea – Heian, I think, maybe Chinese. I'd say Buddhist but it's a bit linear in conception, isn't it.
MH: This was Shindou-san's personal philosophy?
TK: I believe so? ...Yes, I believe so. That is, I suspect serious go players all have an instinctive sense that something like this exists, as a Platonic ideal or... You could take it as a metaphor, of course. To drag my field into this – I apologize – we have a rule of thumb that says, ah, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Meaning that as an embryo develops in the womb, it manifests and loses the characteristics of its species's ancestors, in order. So at one point or another an unborn human baby has gills, has webbed feet, has a tail... From an evolutionary perspective you can trace us back to very simple organisms, apes to mammals, to reptiles, to amphibians, to fish, to single cells, and we comprise all these things in our genes. Afterward we're born, we learn language, we learn tools, culture – including go – all the knowledge that our species accumulated before us. And we take it a step further. The generation that follows us will know a little more than we did. They'll be a little further along the road.
MH: The game of life.
TK: It's a thought. If there's a plan – or there isn't a plan, but something was set in motion, somewhere, at the very beginning. You have to ask yourself, are we progressing? What's the endgame? If there's such a thing as a perfect game, a perfect move – who plays it? [a hesitation] There's another part of it, which I think is essential, which is that to advance toward the Hand of God – I mean, as an individual player, you have to play. And just as God waits for his true opponent, the best-case scenario is that you find your true opponent, who is the person who will advance with you. The two of you walk that path together.
MH: And Shindou-san was Touya-san's...
TK: I thought they were very lucky. Probably everyone around them thought so. What it must be like to have it and then lose it, I can't imagine.
TK: I don't blame him for what he did. I don't know that it was wrong: I can't even say that. But the world has changed. I don't know if God is still waiting. Maybe humanity – all of it – all of us have gone as far as we can down that road, and now we've passed the torch, and it's up to someone else to learn from us. And that someone else will reach the Hand of God. Maybe. I really don't know.
Play. The sound of tape hiss.
"—Questions, and every time I tell them the same thing: not a word of it. Not a single line of code. We still corresponded after the thermography paper but he'd lost interest in publication, and over the years he grew more secretive. So I knew he was still chipping away but I didn't know how close he was to a real breakthrough.
"It's an extraordinary achievement, if you stop to think about it. Even with his incredible expert knowledge. No formal training, no credentials in academia—"
Stop. Fast-forward. Stop. Play.
"—Destroyed the hard drives themselves... But of course it was him. Who else could it have been? For that matter why else would he have done such a thing? I appreciate that any momentous shift in paradigm engenders its healthy share of disbelief but this is proven fact, not conspiracy theory, and I wouldn't be sitting here with you if there weren't definite—"
Stop. Fast-forward. Stop. Play.
"—Is that go – weiqi – is not a brute-force problem like chess that gets easier to solve the more computing power you throw at it. Even deriving an algorithm to automatically determine the winner of a finished game is not trivial. I won't delve too deeply into the mathematical proof of this, Pspace-hard and so forth, but—"
Stop. Fast-forward. Stop. Play.
"—Application to the field of artificial intelligence research as a whole. The sort of insight involved – the heuristic process – is very, very typical of the human mind. It's not unlike the pattern recognition involved in differentiating the face of a family member from a crowd. Now if you'd asked me a few years ago, would you predict that a computer program capable of playing go at the level of a 8-dan or 9-dan would also be able to pass the Turing Test with ease and vice-versa, I'd say you were going out on the sort of limb normally reserved for science fiction."
Stop. Fast-forward: thirty seconds of compressed garble. Stop. Play.
"—Each possible move at any given moment as an individual organism, where the 'species' is the set of all 'live' or viable—"
Stop. Rewind. Stop. Play.
"—An optimization algorithm that takes its cue from natural selection. So instead of drilling down a search tree, you initialize and maintain a population of solutions that is evaluated for fitness in every generation, according to the given criteria of the problem. Poor solutions are weeded out on a competitive basis, and new solutions are generated from the remainder by applying genetic operators – recombination, where you swap elements of a solution with the corresponding ones of another, and mutation, where you make changes to one element of a single solution. So the next generation is biased toward regions of the solution space that are known to produce good results. Lather, rinse, repeat. Eventually some cutoff parameter is attained, and you end up with, if not the fittest individual, then one that's satisfactory.
"Obviously, in computer go you're looking at solutions to the board, or more realistically, localized subgames. So you have to imagine each possible move at any given moment as an individual organism, where the 'species' is the set of all 'live' or viable moves.
"Now to be fair with you, I was never convinced this was the most—"
Stop. A longer pause.
Fast-forward. Stop. Play.
"—Tell you that consciousness is an emergent property of the central nervous system. In other words, that two and two sometimes equal five, and we're not always capable of deriving that extra one. The Roman Catholic stance, I believe, is that at some point during the millions of years it took for primitive hominids to turn into Homo sapiens God reached down and deposited a soul inside the physical container: like a coin in a piggy bank. Or as the media would have it, a ghost in the machine...
"What confounds us about 'Sai' is metaphysical, not physical. It is a program. But you know, the same can be said of us. We were already employing any number of heuristic, non-Cartesian design strategies, based on nature or the human mind: apart from genetic programming, evolutionary algorithms, neural networks... DNA computers, even, so-called biocomputing. So it really depends on how mystical a label you want to slap on it.
"If you want to assume the existence of a programmer in nature, perhaps. Or – why not – flip it. Notate every NP-complete problem as a go game. But that's outside the scope of any argument you can make on behalf of science."
The lady says, "In the end it wasn't his heart that failed him. Nothing else worked. He could barely breathe. Even when he began to slip in and out of consciousness I could feel his heartbeat under my hand, slow and strong... So strong. It didn't want to stop.
"Akira stayed by his side, and Shindou-san was often with us as well. On that day, when Kouyo woke—"
She lowers her gaze, as if the translation of memory to speech requires a continuous effort of will.
"—He asked Shindou-san to play a game with him. He could no longer speak, but he could move his hand, a little. Enough to trace characters in someone else's palm. He had been playing a game with Akira like this, a few hands at a time: whenever he was awake. It was still unfinished. We brought in another goban and left them together, as he requested.
"Akira made me rest. I think he must have dozed off as well, unintentionally. He was just as tired as I was... Shindou-kun came to wake us nearly three hours later. Touya-sensei had fallen asleep, he said. But he was very pale.
"That was the last. Kouyo never regained consciousness, afterward."
You watch your hands curl and uncurl on your knees. You say, "Then... Shindou-san was the last person to speak to your husband."
The lady nods. "Later that evening," she said, "I noticed he had put away the goban and goke. Whatever game it was they had played, no one else saw."
A pause. You remind yourself to breathe: as if truth could be startled from its tracks.
"That was 'Sai', you see... Kouyo spoke less and less of it as time went by, but he never stopped searching. It was in his heart, always. By the end it was the only thing that drove him. I think he always had a sense that the truth was close to him, within arm's reach, if he only knew how to grasp it. And I knew it as well. That was how it was between us.
"They were so much alike. I did not want Akira to be lost, in the same way as his father was. I did not think he would be. But when he returned to this house I realised it was already too late."
The lady pauses for a long while. Her hands are folded primly on her lap, one laid over the other. The screens are open to the long wooden porch, and a breeze plays between the walls, stirring the short hairs at the nape of your neck. The surface of your glass of barley tea shivers with light.
Somewhere, unseen, there are windchimes.
The reality of the room seizes you of a sudden, and you glance up at her with renewed anxiety, as if expecting her to fade, like a ghost. But she remains solid. Something in your expression brings a smile: the curve of her lips is faint, human.
"Miguchi-san," she says, "I cannot pretend to understand the technicalities of what my son has achieved, or brought upon the world. So you must excuse my ideas if they seem foolish to you. You are conversant with all the particulars; I can only speak of what I know. Akira was never 'Sai', and he did not create 'Sai'. 'Sai' existed, and Akira found him – it. He accomplished what his father could not.
"Perhaps he believed that if he succeeded, he would be able to meet Shindou-san again."
I apologize for the tardy response to your last email. To be honest I find the topic difficult to address, and am currently on my third draft. I know you would have preferred a verbal interview, and this format is an imposition on my part, but I feel obliged to set down the anecdote in writing – at the very least for precision's sake. I can admit to a great deal of confusion in my own mind. Perhaps we can speak in person later, when I am back in Tokyo.
As I have mentioned, I was in the habit of meeting Akira for lunch once a month, usually on the first Thursday, unless either of us was out of town. This was the case in September of ____: I had been in Seoul for a series of exhibition matches, so our lunch date was pushed back to the 14th. Akira arrived later than usual, and appeared distracted during the entire course of the meal. It was not unusual for him to be withdrawn, but for once he seemed positively agitated. I can almost use the word vibrant. It was clear to me that something of an exciting nature had recently occurred, but he did not broach the subject voluntarily.
At the end of the meal I asked him directly if he'd made progress in his research. At first he demurred but when I pressed he said that yes, there had been an important breakthrough, and added a few technical details I'm afraid I cannot adequately reproduce. He then invited me to his apartment for a demonstration later that evening, which I accepted.
Re: the question of whether I was the only other person to have interacted with 'Sai' in its original offline form – I'm quite certain I was the only one of Akira's friends with whom he discussed his research, at least from Touya-meijin's old study group. We were relatively close in age and I believe he was always able to speak freely to me. The deaths of his father and Shindou-kun within a short timeframe had affected him greatly, and I was inclined to encourage him in any activity as long as it helped him retain his enthusiasm and drive. All the same I don't believe he would have made the offer if his discovery had occurred on any other day of the month. From the beginning it was something he pursued on his own, and for his own sake. He must have had difficulty in keeping it to himself just then.
I should mention that I had never visited Akira's apartment. It was by no means dilapidated, but he had a great deal of books and papers in disarray, and I was surprised to recognize many of Shindou-kun's belongings in the clutter – homemade videotapes, photographs and various small objects, even old manga phonebooks. Shindou-kun had been in the rather old-fashioned habit of carrying a fan with him to competition matches, and this fan (or one very like it) was lying on the table where most of the computer equipment had been set up. I examined it when Akira was making tea, and noticed the wood had splintered badly in the past and been painstakingly mended.
To tell the truth, by this point I was beginning to feel unsettled. I don't consider myself a superstitious person, nor do I have a particularly vivid imagination, but for some minutes I was convinced that Shindou-kun would arrive shortly, if in fact he were not already in the next room – as if we were back in the old apartment he shared with Akira and about to hold a study session. I would not have been surprised to see his shoes in the genkan.
My mood was so peculiar that I can't bring myself to trust my own impression of the games we played that evening. Accordingly I've never spoken of it in any detail, although I've endeavoured to reproduce the kifu as a matter of record. As you can see, I played first with a two-stone advantage and lost. I also lost one of the two speed go games; the fourth game (in which I had a five-stone advantage) was abandoned due to lack of time, but I do not believe I would have won.
I was close to Touya-meijin at the time of the first Sai's appearance and remember the incident well. The strength of the opponent I played that evening was of the same order of magnitude, but it was not the same person. I can say that advisedly; it is the second part of the conclusion that is more difficult.
At around midnight I took my leave, pleading fatigue. Akira accompanied me to the door, and asked me in point-blank fashion for my thoughts. I said,
"I feel like I've been playing Shindou-kun, only he's improved greatly since the last time."
It was a tasteless remark, and came out more lightly than I intended, but I was tired and befuddled and at a loss for any comment other than the truth. Akira only smiled. Then he said,
"I'll have to work hard as well, then."
As I remember it he looked quite happy, happier than I'd seen him in years.
He never invited me back, however, nor did I press the issue. By the next day I was feeling considerably embarrassed by my own reaction as well as confused by what had occurred, and avoided the topic thereafter in conversation with Akira. Needless to say, I did not mention what had happened to anyone else.
I thought of Akira's words often during the run-up to the Meijin tournament, but could not come to a satisfactory conclusion – a conclusion that eludes me still. I regret not asking him for an explanation. Not for curiosity's sake, but because I would have tried to be of help to him. Any small effort would have been greater than the one I made.
Please do not hesitate to contact me with further questions regarding the above; I will endeavour to answer them to the best of my ability.
I remain yours,
The child had been on the swing set for nearly half an hour. She had polished her technique, and – from what the researcher could see – was applying it with ferocious, close-eyed concentration: kicks to gain speed and momentum, then angling her legs and body to reduce drag as she soared upward into the air, braids flying. She kept her feet pointed like those of a diver or ballerina. He had an atavistic fear that she would fall, but she never did.
The sky was very blue.
Her mother kept watch, in the way of mothers seated on park benches. Eventually she said, "I was there when Hikaru-kun first discovered go. I remembered, just now. We were exploring in his attic and found an old goban – it looked very old, like an antique. It was summer, and we were in the sixth grade. It was afterward that he started playing."
"You played as well, didn't you?"
"Yes, but I didn't have any talent. We both joined the go club in junior high. I took it seriously, at least for an after-school activity. Thinking back I was there as much for the friends I made as the game itself. And for Hikaru-kun of course."
She held a thermos of hot tea on her lap, between her hands.
"Hikaru-kun was someone I'd known all my life. I didn't see him very often after he became a professional and I went to high school, but I would buy Go Weekly just to find out if he'd won. I think by then I was a little jealous of him. He worked hard, but to have that sense of purpose when you're fifteen, sixteen... doing what you care about, with people that you care about.
"I remember when he first started mentioning Touya Akira. In the end I'd heard so much about him, you know, before I had the chance to meet him properly, and when I did I just thought..."
"I'd rather not say it. I was a little girl, still, at the time."
The pause at the apogee of an arc: the child silhouetted against endless blue, the time of an indrawn breath.
"He never forgave me, I think. ...Touya-kun."
The researcher removed his glasses and polished them against his sleeve. With them still off he said, "It wasn't your fault."
"I was driving."
"It was the other—"
She smiled in acknowledgement of his tone. "I know. But that doesn't make it any easier. I can't forgive myself, either."
The researcher looked down at his hands.
The mother sipped from her thermos and watched her child. After a minute or so of silence she said, "I don't believe Touya-kun did it because of go. I don't believe it was so he could win the Meijin title, or to improve his playing, or... And I don't think he was crazy. Go made them important to each other, but... it wasn't just that. You should have seen them when they were together.
"I remember when they told me about Hikaru-kun. I was still in hospital and they tried to say he was all right, but when I saw their eyes I knew he wasn't. That night I lay in bed and prayed for God to take me instead. I didn't want to know that it was because of me. I couldn't think about Hikaru-kun's mother, or Touya-kun. I thought, if it had to happen, I should have been the one.
"I've never prayed like that before or since. I can't even tell you if I believe in God. But that night I was convinced Hikaru-kun would come back, as long as my prayer was answered. There wasn't a shred of doubt in my mind. I was only afraid that God wouldn't accept my bargain. And He never did.
"That's what happens when you lose someone important. You believe in miracles."
The child had come to a stop, digging her toes aimlessly in the sand. The mother stood.
"Hikaru-chan," she called. "Time to go home."
The child came running, and molded herself breathlessly to her mother's side. The mother smoothed the braids with one hand and smiled.
"I'm glad Touya-kun found what he was looking for," she said. "They told me afterward, you see, that my injuries meant I wouldn't be able to have any children. So now, every day, this little one lets me know that miracles happen. Sometimes. They happen."
The same living room, dimly lit. A young man is sitting, cross-legged, on the floor. From the angle he has placed the camera on a chair, or piece of furniture of similar height; when he speaks he leans slightly toward the lens, his body language earnest. He wears olive green pajama bottoms, and a light blue t-shirt with the text GOGOGO printed over the chest in shades of orange. Part of his hair is bleached blond, and all of it is wildly tousled. The effect is of someone who rolled out of bed minutes ago.
YOUNG MAN (sheepishly): Couldn't sleep again.
A pause. He casts around visibly for something else to say.
YOUNG MAN: I won yesterday. Nakazono 5-dan, you'll be playing him in February I think? Can't remember. I'll show you when you get back. It's that formation we came up with at Waya's, that one time. I thought he was going to fight me for the right-hand side every step but he made a mistake where you played 13-4 and then he just folded. I guess I should've expected it.
The rest's been kind of boring. I told you about my mom... I'm going to meet up with some people from junior high, over the weekend. Some of them you've met, like Tsutsui-san and – Akari's getting married. Isn't that amazing? I called her a Christmas cake and she punched me.
YOUNG MAN: You're probably not going to see this anyway, are you?
A pause, longer this time.
YOUNG MAN: What you said was right, you know. I really do suck at being alone. I just never remember it until you have to go somewhere. Or I have to go somewhere. It's habit, I... stupid, I guess, more than anything else. Wouldn't want to get pushed away because I was hanging on too hard. ...Ah. Scratch that part from the record, sir, I didn't mean it sir.
He runs a hand through his hair.
YOUNG MAN: Heh. I don't know. You should worry more. Maybe after I die I'll come back to haunt you, and force you to play go with my ghost. Then you'd have to put the stones where I tell you to and—
His voice trails off. After a moment he grins and ducks his head, embarrassed.
YOUNG MAN: Going back to bed. I'll see you when you get home, 'kay?
He mouthes something else soundlessly, then presses fingers to his lips in a cursory blown kiss. In the same movement he leans forward, reaching behind the camera, and the screen goes dark.