Kasparov on chess and computing power
One of the benefits of being married to a chess fanatic is that I can read articles like this one by Garry Kasparov and feel like an insider– after all, only an insider would understand what a Sicilian Defence is and could have told you that Magnus Carlsen is a rising Norwegian chess genius!
In all seriousness though, this is an interesting article on multiple levels. First, Kasparov writes about a period of time where artificial intelligence (AI) seemed not only possible, but imminent. I was in high school at the time and I remember discussing with classmates the inevitability of Kasparov’s loss– even if he had beaten Deep Blue, IBM would simply have doubled Deep Blue’s computing power again so that it could analyze even further ahead into the game. At some point, the sheer brute force of calculations would simply overwhelm any human.
Later, while studying systems design engineering, I remember Deep Blue serving as a reference point for us: it represented certain possibilities for artificial intelligence (albeit in a crude form). My classmates at Waterloo took up co-op work terms at companies that were on the bleeding edge of this field. One of the most brilliant of them, Terry Stewart, is now conducting research in this area. All this to say that Kasparov does a good job here of evoking an era where technology presented different possibilities and could have moved in a different direction altogether.
Instead of a computer that thought and played chess like a human, with human creativity and intuition, they got one that played like a machine, systematically evaluating 200 million possible moves on the chess board per second and winning with brute number-crunching force….
It was an impressive achievement… but Deep Blue was only intelligent the way your programmable alarm clock is intelligent. Not that losing to a $10 million alarm clock made me feel any better.
What I also found interesting was Kasparov’s commentary on how people are learning to play chess differently these days because of computers.
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….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.
This is both obvious and amazing to me. It’s obvious because this is how everyone learns to play chess– at the beginning. As you play more, certain patterns become obvious; given certain opening moves, chess players have figured out best responses. These sets of opening “best responses” are classified into groups that are together referred to as opening theory. As Kasparov points out, some of these have developed over hundred of years and people like my husband have hundreds of books that cover these openings and detail their variations. Most of these books are actually useless unless you enter into that variation– which might take 16 moves (like the Accelerated Dragon). The possibility that opening theory might be seen as an archaic way of studying suggests a radical shift in how chess is now approached.
Equally remarkable has been the rise of “bots”– these are computer programs designed to play games. Chess may have received the most attention, but Checkers, as a game, has actually been solved– that is to say, there is a winning strategy that consistently beats humans. And there are others too, on game sites like Little Golem, where bots play side by side with humans.
In 2005, the online chess-playing site Playchess.com hosted what it called a “freestyle” chess tournament in which anyone could compete in teams with other players or computers. Normally, “anti-cheating” algorithms are employed by online sites to prevent, or at least discourage, players from cheating with computer assistance. Full article.
My sense is that this is only the beginning of the fun. We’re not quite there yet, but one day in the future, human brains will be implanted with processors that will allow us to access data on this scale. The billions of calculations needed to beat Garry Kasparov (sans implant of course) in a game of chess will eventually be available to us all.