João Gonçalves stumbled upon the game of Go when he googled complex board games. He enjoyed chess, but the way the professionals play it – ‘competitive and fast ’ – took away from the charm of the game for him. He wanted something new and he found it online: Go –– ‘sort of the chess of Asia, but more complicated’. Gonçalves immersed and skilled himself in the game together with his brother.


Go is a board game for two players with white and black stones. The board consists of 19 by 19 lines. A player may place a stone at each intersection on the board. The goal is to mark off a territory by surrounding areas on the board with stones of your own colour. The game is over when neither player wants to make another move.

Masterful amateurs

Not much later, South Korea wanted to make the game better known around the world. And so it happened that as a 20-year-old student, Gonçalves flew to Seoul with his brother, four years his junior, to represent Portugal at a Go championship paid for and organised by South Korea. “After arriving at the capital, we travelled on to a small village that was home to one of the greats of the game. It was our first time in Asia and we were totally overwhelmed by the culture that was so different from Portugal.”

In a village surrounded by rice fields, the world’s best amateurs gathered to play against the great professionals. The boards were set up alongside each other and Gonçalves took on a grandmaster five times. During the games, he drank tea with rice in it, and – as is customary in Go – each player was given an hour of thinking time. “I was walking among the rice fields thinking about my next move. It was a whole new culture for me, but as soon as the match started I was fully focused on that.”

It’s the road that counts, not the destination

Gonçalves did not win a single match. “Of course not”, as he put it, but that’s not what Go is about for him anyway. The goal is to mark off a larger territory than the opponent. If neither player wants to make another move, the game is over.  For Gonçalves, what makes Go so fascinating is how you play the game. “It’s about reflecting. If I want too much at once, I’ll lose, but if I’m too cautious, I also won’t succeed.”

According to Gonçalves, Go lost its glory in 2016, when computers beat the world’s best player at the time. Initially, Gonçalves did not realise this match had changed his perspective on the game. It was only when he read the book The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata, which he got as a gift from his wife, that he realised it described what was experiencing. “The mystique is gone. A computer can now tell you which move is good and which is not. It’s no longer about what is a beautiful move or how your way of playing is determined by who you are.”

The Master of Go is a fictional story based on an actual game of Go in 1938 where an old master of the game competed against an up-and-coming talent. The master represented tradition and the old conception of Go as a creative process, whereas the new generation approached the board game competitively and rationally. Gonçalves folded a dog-ear to mark the page where the author describes how the different perspectives collided: “One conducted the battle only to win, and there was no margin for remembering the dignity and the fragrance of Go as an art.”

Lees meer

This book filled with fascinating images inspired Charlotte Bruns while she was working on her PhD (for which she received several awards)

A thickly-padded book filled with colourful pictures – how useful is that to a…

Teachers are old masters

Gonçalves also sees parallels in the book with the advent of ChatGPT in education. “Maybe I am the old master who teaches in the traditional way, while ChatGPT represents the new generation, the generation of pragmatism and efficiency.” He certainly sees how AI can help education: “If a shy student is afraid to discuss his research proposal with a classmate, he can have a conversation with ChatGPT.” But he says something is also lost: the interaction and process. “We can focus on the end result, but it’s actually on the road towards it that you learn to understand yourself and the subject. That is essential.”

Gonçalves received a Veni grant for his research to make AI more human. He combines the competencies of a computer scientist and media scientist: he understands the technology behind AI and speaks the language of social science. “I want to work with Meta and Google to develop an algorithm that moderates online hate in a more humane way. Yes, I’m an idealist. Through research, I want to change the world.”

Number of books a year: 4

Favourite genre: science fiction, fantasy, detectives
Main motivation: escapism
Last book read: “My brother’s fantasy book, The Old Mage’s Gamble. I was one of his first readers. It was a pleasure to read the book, but something was missing. Suddenly I realised there were only people and no animals in the story. It wasn’t right. My brother then changed the story. There are now animals in his fantasy world.”

João Gonçalves is assistant professor at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication. After studying Communication Studies in Portugal, he worked for two years as a journalist for a newspaper. For his PhD, he researched online hate speech and personally developed an algorithm to go through his own data faster.