Grandmasters vs. Gigabytes | review of “Deep Thinking” by Robin Hanson | WSJ


By Robin Hanson

May 18, 2017

Garry Kasparov on a television monitor May 1997, at the start of the sixth and final match against IBM’s Deep Blue computer. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Remember those inspiring but tragic tales of humanity’s last cashiers and travel agents struggling against the relentless robots coming to take their jobs? The thrill of competition, then the agony of defeat? Me neither. Few readers would be interested in such stories anyway. But world chess champion Garry Kasparov is hoping that you’ll want to hear his own account of a man being beaten by machines.

On May 11, 1997, he became the first world chess champion to be beaten by a computer, IBM ’s Deep Blue. Though he had won against the computer easily just a year before, this time a greatly improved opponent defeated him and, at times, broke his composure. In a rare blunder, he even resigned from a position that would have led to a draw. Mr. Kasparov says that his book “Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins” contains the first account of this match “that has all the facts and the only one that has my side of the story.”

Though he had previously voiced suspicions that Deep Blue’s creators cheated by spying on his private team discussions, he now doubts this occurred. After all, he’s seen how computers have continued to improve: Today they play chess so well the best humans don’t stand a chance. But this does not make humans superfluous. More people play chess well than ever before; computer aids help players learn faster; and computer-human chess teams have become the basis of an exciting new sport.

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With the benefit of time and perspective, Mr. Kasparov can admit his experience with Deep Blue says little “beyond what we already knew was inevitable, that smarter programs on faster machines would beat the human world champion sometime around the year 2000.” Stepping back further, he observes that, when it comes to computer-human competition, the consistent pattern is “thousands of years of status quo human dominance, a few decades of weak competition, a few years of struggle for supremacy. Then, game over.”

Though Mr. Kasparov writes knowledgeably about the computers that beat him, when he turns toward prediction-making he is prone to over-generalize from these experiences to make statements about all computers everywhere and forever. He says things like “A computer won’t tire . . . or [get] distracted” and “computers . . . don’t understand general concepts” or know how to bluff. Well, today computers don’t, but tomorrow they might. “Machines cannot dream,” he writes, “not even in sleep mode.” Again, true today, but who can say how far computers might improve?

Mr. Kasparov’s most flowery and emotional language arises when addressing the issues in his subtitle. “To keep ahead of the machines,” he writes, “we must not try to slow them down because that slows us down as well.” Though I tend to agree with such claims, they are more preached than argued in this book, and there’s not much analysis behind Mr. Kasparov’s predictions, or his assertion that “machines will . . . [take] over the more menial aspects of cognition, . . . elevating our mental lives toward creativity, curiosity, beauty, and joy.” 

On other topics, Mr. Kasparov makes many thoughtful observations. Eager for big education reforms, he laments that we often avoid big innovations, and instead pretend that small ones are big. He perceptively observes that “many things we call innovations are little more than the skillful accumulation of many little optimizations.” And, he notes, “the potential for change is much greater than our appetite for it.” 

Interestingly, Mr. Kasparov also believes that there’s nothing special about chess as a metaphor for other activities or as an intelligence test for humans or machines. It was a big mistake, he thinks, for early computer researchers to expect “that if a machine could be taught to play chess well, surely the secrets of human cognition would be unlocked at last.” Specialized chess machines can be a fine sport, but the quest to understand human general intelligence should invest elsewhere: Most things our minds do aren’t much like playing chess. 

Given his history, you might expect Mr. Kasparov to sell his story as an aid to seeing how computers will come for your job. “Every profession will eventually feel this pressure,” he says. But his advice to workers runs more to timeless practical maxims, such as “hard work is a talent,” “a bad plan is better than no plan” and “if you change your strategy all the time you don’t really have one.” More than any such specific observations, however, what I value most in this book is Mr. Kasparov’s own example. He sets himself forward as an intelligent, honest and self-critical person, working hard to adapt to and understand his world. The author admits to being a sore loser and apologizes for not being gracious after the Deep Blue defeat. He worries that his age and success limit his openness to changing his thinking, about chess and more, and sees little point in debating the meaning of “intelligence.”

I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the high status of chess champions, whom many consider intellectuals (rather than, say, sports stars). But in “Deep Thinking,” Mr. Kasparov has changed my mind. He praises Mikhail Botvinnik, the founder of the Soviet chess school where he trained, for practicing an “intense regime of self-criticism.” Chess champions are rewarded for brutal honesty about their habits and strategies. If only most tenured professors and business executives were this conscious of their limitations and blind spots.

“Few young stars in any discipline are aware of why they excel,” Mr. Kasparov writes. Like Mr. Kasparov, I don’t know why he was great. But I know now why I’m glad we have him. We need at least a few of our most celebrated minds to be this intellectually honest with themselves, and with us.

Mr. Hanson is a professor at George Mason University and the author of “The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life When Robots Rule the Earth.”



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