Grandmaster Garry Kasparov during the last of six games against Deep Blue in 1997; the computer won the match by 3.5 games to 2.5.
Nearly 20 years ago, I was fortunate enough to play friendly blitz chess against former world champion Garry Kasparov. It was quite an experience; his competitive spirit and creative genius were palpable. I had recently founded Elixir Studios, which specialized in artificial intelligence (AI) games, and my ambition was to conduct cutting-edge research in the field. AI was on my mind that day: Kasparov had played chess against IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue just a few years before. Now, he sets out the details of that titanic event in his memoir Deep Thinking.
The 1997 match was a watershed for AI and an extraordinary technical feat. Strangely, although Kasparov lost, it left me more in awe of the incredible capabilities of the human brain than of the machine. Kasparov was able to compete against a computational leviathan and to complete myriad other tasks that make us all distinctly human. By contrast, Deep Blue was hard-coded with a set of specialized rules distilled from chess grandmasters, and empowered with a brute-force search algorithm. It was programmed to do one thing only; it could not have played even a simpler game such as noughts and crosses without being completely reprogrammed. I felt that this brand of ‘intelligence’ was missing crucial traits such as generality, adaptability and learning.
As he details in Deep Thinking, Kasparov reached a similar conclusion. The book is his first thorough account of the match, and it offers thoughtful meditations on technology. The title references what he believes chess engines cannot do: they can calculate, but not innovate or create. They cannot think in the deepest sense. In drawing out these distinctions, Kasparov provides an impressively researched history of AI and the field’s ongoing obsession with chess.
For decades, leading computer scientists believed that, given the traditional status of chess as an exemplary demonstration of human intellect, a competent computer chess player would soon also surpass all other human abilities. That proved not to be the case. This has to do partly with differences between human and machine cognition: computers can easily perform calculation tasks that people consider incredibly difficult, but totally fail at commonsense tasks we find intuitive (a phenomenon called Moravec’s paradox). It was also due to…