AI Supports Corporate Decision-Making
May 11, 2016

For a company, profits and investments are like the black and white stones in the traditional game of Go. Which move should be made in the current situation? There is no harm in listening to what artificial intelligence has to say.

Inside the office of Robert Wong, chairman of optical disc maker CMC Magnetics Corp., a Go board shines through the surface of a glass coffee table. Turning one's gaze toward the right side of the room, one spies a wooden Go board table in front of the full-height window. Even a stool on the left side of the table turns out to be a Go board underneath its cover.

Wong is a Go aficionado. The passionate amateur player has reached the 6th rank, the highest for a non-professional player in Taiwan. He invested his own money to found the Taiwan Chi Yuan Culture Foundation (TCCF) to promote the board game and train professional talent.

"I have always hoped to nurture Go players from Taiwan, hoping that Taiwanese Go players will be able to compete for the world championship to bring glory to Taiwan," says Wong in explaining his motivation behind the Go association.

In 2007, Chou Chun-hsun (周俊勳), a professional Go player of the 9th rank, won the LG Cup Go competition, a world rank event, in Seoul. One year later, 12-year-old Chien Li-chen (簡立宸), won the 3rd Korean Prime Minister Cup. Both players belong to TCCF.

Why does Wong love this strategic board game so much? Wong says that the game offers a wide range of choices in making a move due to the many intersections on the Go board. A game can last up to 360 moves. Like an enterprise or life, it can entail countless possibilities and opportunities.

The Right Balance

Wong tries to explain the technical terms used in Go in the simplest language. He also elaborates as to how strategic Go thinking can be applied to business management: Go is a game for two played on a 19 x 19 grid board with 361 intersection points. The two opponents take turns, making one move at a time by placing a stone on an empty intersection. If a player successfully encircles a stone of his opponents on all four sides, he has won one point of territory. Hence the game's Chinese name, Weiqi, which means "encirclement chess." At the end of the game, the player with the most points wins. Once the game has begun, the players must seize as much territory as possible. A skilled player might secure 15 intersection points with just two stones.

But if a player places two stones outside his territory, failing to surround a point, he will not be able to win 15 points. Yet if a player places five or six stones outside the territory, he gains attack capability, which is known as "outside influence."

Wong gets more excited as he continues: In the event of an attack by the opponent, this outside influence becomes a wall of defense. However, if one wants to attack an opponent, it will be a strong force that will drive the enemy into a corner, from which there is no escape.

The counter force to outside influence is called "solid territory." It means establishing a solid foothold in a territory, because victory or defeat in Go depend on the size of the territory that one seizes. If we apply this concept to business management, solid territory is represented by the visible, tangible core business profits that a company makes every year. The solid territory in Go equals "value" in business, whereas outside influence is "policy," Wong says.

The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), for instance, boasted an EPS of NT$11.82 in 2015, with profits coming mainly from its core semiconductor business. These profits equal value. On the other hand, biotech company OBI Pharma Inc. incurred losses in 2015 with a negative EPS of NT$5.66.

This means that OBI Pharma presently does not have value. But, as Wong points out, once OBI Pharma's new drugs are successful and generate huge returns, its outside influence will all turn into value, and that is why OBI Pharma's share price is many times higher than the price of TSMC shares. However, should the new drugs fail, the share price bubble will burst.

Superior Go players seek to strike a balance between solid territory and outside influence. The same should apply to corporate management, says Wong.

Taking CMC Magnetics as an example, Wong says that, during the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, the company was upbeat about the internet economy. Wong therefore decided to invest in more than 100 Internet firms and startups. These investments have become CMC Magnetics' outside influence.

In 1999, the company sold its stake in the Internet companies, including Amazon, realizing huge profits. Back then, CMC Magnetics posted NT$6 billion in profits from its core operations and NT$3.2 billion in non-operating income. At the time, the value was good, and the outside influence had evolved into an attack capability. But with the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000, many Internet-related companies went bust.

U.S. Internet technology giant Google definitely did not develop the artificial intelligence system Alpha Go out of an interest in Go, Wong declares in unequivocal terms. If Google pairs its artificial intelligence with robot-eye sensors and existing GPS technology, Wong asks, doesn't it then have all the components for an autonomous driverless car?

These Google investments constitute outside influence. None are currently profitable, but once they become successful, Google will reap gigantic profits. The fact that Google's stock trades at a higher forward price earnings ratio than Apple's on Wall Street illustrates that investors are upbeat about the attack capability that Google derives from its outside influence.

AI Suggestions, Humans Decisions

Corporate management resembles Go in that the unshakable principle of "once a move has been made, it can't be undone" applies to both. Occasionally it is possible to save the situation after making one or two wrong moves. However, you will only be able to ultimately clinch victory if you tread very carefully every single step you take. How can entrepreneurs take advantage of AI to help their companies take the right road?

"I am making movies; I invest in ten movies per year," Wong says. CMC Magnetics began to fund movies more than a decade ago. Most recently, the company has been preparing to set up a cutting-edge film studio equipped with autonomous film cameras that operate without a human cameraman.

Currently, CMC Magnetics is still looking for a suitable site in Taiwan. The company is also branching out into other industries. On Yangmingshan in Taipei, the tourism hotel (Beaumont Garden) it invested is going to open soon. In cooperation with Japanese book retailer Tsutaya Books, the company will also open bookstores in Taiwan. Wong is planning to exploit artificial intelligence in all of his new ventures, from filmmaking to entertainment, the creative industry and tourism.

"After we have an artificial intelligence-equipped film studio, artificial intelligence [technology] can provide suggestions about what kind of movie should be shot and how to select the script, the actors and the director as reference for decision-making," Wong says.

However, the final decision must still be made by humans, because only human beings are capable of true thinking, Wong says.

Unlike in the movie Inside Out, Alpha Go does not have emotions like Joy and Sadness living in its core memory. Rather, it was trained by analyzing moves that Go masters had played in past winning games. AI technology depends on data input by humans, which determines the content of its output. Modern AI technology is able to learn by itself. Therefore, it is quite important what kind of data a company decides to feed into an AI system.

Thirty-one years ago, the Hollywood science fiction movie Back to the Future featured numerous new technologies and products that seemed outlandish at the time but have meanwhile become reality, such as hands-free game consoles, fingerprint recognition, 3D, video phones and wearable smart technology. Human-like androids as seen in another blockbuster science fiction film, Blade Runner, however, seem to remain fiction for the time being, although small humanoid robots that interact with humans have already hit the market. There is SoftBank's Pepper, a companion robot, as well as robot smartphone RoBoHoN which both can politely bow, shake hands, talk and understand spoken orders.

As AI technology advances, companies are bound to churn out new AI-related products at an ever-faster pace. Most likely, we won't have to wait another 30 years before science fictional gadgets and ideas become part of our daily lives. What appears futuristic now could become reality in just five years.

By Patty Yen

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz