Kasparov on the Human and the Machine07-05-2010
One of the most reflective essays on the fate of Human Being in an Inhuman Age is Gary Kasparov's NY Review of Books Essay, The Chess Master and the Computer.
Kasparov respects the power of computers and knows that there already exist computer programs that play Checkers in a way that is unbeatable. Chess is another story, and although IBM's Deep Blue bested him in 1997, the challenge of an unbeatable Chess program is extreme, if simply because there are over 10 to the 120th possible chess games, and most computers simply are not yet so powerful as to be able to master every game. That said, most store-bought computer chess machines will regularly beat grandmasters.
The real question the smart machines raise is not who will win, but how the intelligent machines change our human being and our human world. Kasparov has three fascinating observations on that question.
First, Kasparov argues that machines have changed the ways Chess is played and redefined what a good chess move and a well-played chess game looks like.
The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.
One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic.
The question is: is such a world less human?
Another change Kasparov identifies is that the availability of computer chess machines has reduced the advantage of age and experience.
The availability of millions of games at one’s fingertips in a database is also making the game’s best players younger and younger. Absorbing the thousands of essential patterns and opening moves used to take many years, a process indicative of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours to become an expert” theory as expounded in his recent book Outliers. (Gladwell’s earlier book, Blink, rehashed, if more creatively, much of the cognitive psychology material that is re-rehashed in Chess Metaphors.) Today’s teens, and increasingly pre-teens, can accelerate this process by plugging into a digitized archive of chess information and making full use of the superiority of the young mind to retain it all. In the pre-computer era, teenage grandmasters were rarities and almost always destined to play for the world championship. Bobby Fischer’s 1958 record of attaining the grandmaster title at fifteen was broken only in 1991. It has been broken twenty times since then, with the current record holder, Ukrainian Sergey Karjakin, having claimed the highest title at the nearly absurd age of twelve in 2002. Now twenty, Karjakin is among the world’s best, but like most of his modern wunderkind peers he’s no Fischer, who stood out head and shoulders above his peers—and soon enough above the rest of the chess world as well.
Aside from mortality, one of the essential features of human beings through history has been the benefit of wisdom acquired with age. But as the world values increasingly reason over insight and facts over judgment, the necessity of experience is supplanted by the acquisition of knowledge through computers.
A third consequence of the rise of computer chess is that genius and exceptional experience is effectively neutralized. Kasparov tells of his experience of two matches played against the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, at the time the world's highest ranked Chess Master. When Kasparov played him in regular timed chess, he bested Topalov 3-1. But when he played him in a match when both were allowed to consult a computer for assistance, the match ended in a 3-3 draw. It is not that computer-assisted chess nullifies human creativity: As Kasparov writes:
The computer could project the consequences of each move we considered, pointing out possible outcomes and countermoves we might otherwise have missed. With that taken care of for us, we could concentrate on strategic planning instead of spending so much time on calculations. Human creativity was even more paramount under these conditions.
And yet, the computer evened out the match nevertheless: "My advantage in calculating tactics had been nullified by the machine."
What Kasparov offers are three transformations of the modern world that the rise of artificial intelligence promise.
1) As computers set the standard for success, the world will value creativity and originality less and rationality ever more. Jaron Lanier has made similar arguments in his book You Are Not a Gadget.
2) The advantages of age and experience will be eroded and our already youth-worshipping culture will have fewer reasons than ever for respecting their elders.
3) Cheap and easy access to unlimited computer power will largely neutralize the genetic or social advantages of extraordinary memory or excellent schooling.
Other changes beckon as well, for good and for bad. And the overriding question remains: How to be Human in an increasingly Inhuman Age?