[Book Review] Deep Thinking by Garry Kasparov; Humans 1 – Computers 1

“I was furious, ripped out of my state of deep concentration at a key moment in the game”. This is how Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov described his response when computer chess program Deep Blue crashed and had to be restarted during game four of their first encounter in 1996. This game was also the first time a reigning world chess champion lost to a computer and it has become a landmark trophy of Artificial Intelligence. Kasparov eventually won the six-game match and in his new book talks candidly about his side of this epic human vs machine story. It’s a version of events that has largely been drowned out by machine learning hype and now after 20 years Kasparov has comprehensively put his side on the record.

“mankind’s submission before the almighty computer”

Although the first chess programs were actually written in the late 1950s, like all growth curves of exponential technology they achieved only modest early successes and deceptive improvements in their first decades. Like so many breakthroughs, artificial chess intelligence became disruptive due to a combination of factors that propelled it to world fame, drove IBM’s share price up and famously defeated Kasparov at their rematch. Controversially their equalizing match was to be their last contest after which IBM shut down and dismantled Deep Blue; they had achieved “mankind’s submission before the almighty computer”. Monty Newborn’s 2003 book Deep Blue hailed the computer’s victory as “a rare, pivotal watershed beyond all other triumphs: Orville Wright’s first flight, NASA’s landing on the moon.”

more of an anti-Kasparov campaign than a noble quest for improved artifical intelligence

Although Kasparov acknowledged the great achievement, he remains sceptical about how IBM ran the two competitions, handled the public relations about the events and why they eventually, and quite suddenly, packed up the programme. He speculates that it was more of an anti-Kasparov campaign than a noble quest for improved artifical intelligence. IBM had hired a number of grandmasters to work on Deep Blue and Kasparov points out that many of them had unique insights into his style of play and specifically his strengths and weaknesses – almost as if they had been hand picked for that reason. Despite his reservations about the entire Deep Blue saga, Kasparov was one of the early proponents of chess programmes and recounts in his book about how he would bring back computers from his travels in the West and give them to the kids in his home town in Russia.

42 is the great answer, according to Deep Thought

Kasparov is also a well respected, international thought leader and I was honoured to see him speak at the Discovery Leadership Summit in Johannesburg in 2012. He described how just the week before coming to South Africa he had been arrested, detained and beaten by Russian police for his political activism during a well known court case. He also spoke passionately about the work he does with schools and chess academies, which he continues today in America where he now lives with his family in New York. He remains optimistic about the human / machine journey and the contribution that chess has made, including through his own role and the increased awareness it brought to the field. Importantly, he points out that the ability to ask the right questions is what continues to separate man from machine; 42 is the great answer, according to Deep Thought in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but what is the question?

Kasparov often quotes Pablo Picasso in his talks, who said “Computers are useless, they can only give you answers”, a somewhat overly critical view of this distinction. He does however believe “we will need our intelligent machines in order to turn our grandest dreams into reality”. Unlike computers, humans have purpose, they can dream and be creative – Kasparov’s journey of deep thinking is a story of a great mind against great machines; something we can all learn from as more and more intelligent machines continue to disrupt our world.

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