Garry Kasparov on intelligent machines

Is the modern world one of man versus machine, or one where man and machine can work in harness? Nick Peters reports from this year’s Hay Festival

Garry Kasparov was onstage with Stephen Fry at this year’s Hay Festival to discuss his new book Deep Thinking, his discussion of AI, machine learning and our relationship with both.
Garry Kasparov (R) onstage with Stephen Fry (L) at this year’s Hay Festival discussing his new book Deep Thinking, a discussion of AI, machine learning and our relationship with both.

In 1997, the world chess champion Garry Kasparov went into battle with a chess-playing computer, Deep Blue, and lost.

For many, this reinforced the perception that we are on an inexorable journey to checkmate, humanity, where we will become mere pawns in the hands of machines. However, Kasparov himself resists this gloomy narrative.

It’s not hard to understand why opponents found Garry Kasparov so formidable. Watching him in discussion with Stephen Fry at the Hay Festival on Sunday, I was struck by the power and conviction that lay just beneath the surface of his otherwise charming demeanour, often revealing them where provoked by a question or point with which he disagreed.

It made me wonder a little about his readiness to downplay the inherent ‘smartness’ of Deep Blue. Was he just a sore loser, who couldn’t accept that 20 years ago a gigantic computer outwitted him?

The answer is no, because as the question itself demonstrates, we misunderstand what Deep Blue actually did. It didn’t outwit him, because it couldn’t.

All it did was use brute force processing to filter out all the moves it needed to make to win and then select them. It didn’t create those moves – its programmers did. (By the way, any chess app on today’s smartphones is better than Deep Blue. Thanks, Moore’s Law.)

Kasparov’s point is that while we have the creativity, we also allow our concentration to wander, allow emotions to interfere with logic. Deep Blue suffered no such distractions, nor do any of its successors. His Deep Blue challenge was, at the time, just the latest story in the ‘Man vs Machine’ trope.

John Henry was the “steel-driving, hammer-swinging” hero of the 19th century American folk tale, who pitted his strength against a tunnel-boring machine and won. He also dropped dead on the spot, to give comfort to those who see us as the ultimate losers in a war with machines.

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Kasparov cites the elevator operators in New York City whose paralysing, city-wide strike in 1945 finally ushered in the age of self-operated lifts. The fact is, the self-operating technology had been around since the turn of the century, but people were too scared to use it, so buildings employed human operators.

He likens this fear to that which many express today when confronted by driverless cars. Will that fear hold back the technology?

(I was driving a new Range Rover Sport at the weekend, courtesy of Hay-sponsors Tata, and was astonished to find that the car was driving itself when in cruise control. It slowed down, braked, and accelerated all on its own. All I had to do was steer it. At first unnerving, and then quite reassuring, a stepping stone on the journey to driverless cars.)

Garry Kasparov was at Hay to discuss his new book Deep Thinking, the product of two decades’ research into artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and our relationship with both.

Of course, Google has just taken the issue into new territory with AlphaGo, that beat the world champion Go player by combining brute force computing with machine learning and deep neural networks. Kasparov readily admits that “Deep Blue was the end; AlphaGo is the beginning.”

He confesses he doesn’t know where AI will take us, but he does invite us not to be afraid, and to emulate the chess players who came after him, who found that they could improve their game by using computers as processing assistants to allow their human creativity its maximum expression.

As he writes, “Machines that replace physical labour have allowed us to focus more on what makes us human: our minds. Intelligent machines will continue that process, taking over the more menial aspects of cognition and elevating our mental lives toward creativity, curiosity, beauty, and joy. These are what truly make us human, not any particular activity or skill, like swinging a hammer – or even playing chess.”