"Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward; they may be beaten but they may start a winning game."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Rebecca Thomas has a long and thoughtful response to my post on Gary Kasparov's article on computers, chess, and humanity. The whole comment is worth reading. But here is how she begins:
Regarding the first of the three comments, I have to take issue with the idea that a chess game played by a computer is necessarily less beautiful than one played by a human. There are various kinds of beauty, and mathematical beauty is a very real thing. Some proofs are more elegant than others, for instance. Some x-y curves are quite beautiful, and often these are captured by particularly compact mathematical expressions. One could wonder why: is this preference for simplicity inherent in our idea of beauty, or have we preferentially developed (mathematical) language to describe things we find beautiful?
Surely, there is beauty to math. And there are various kinds of beauty. An efficient, powerful, and unstoppable game of chess played by a computer may be truly beautiful in its reduction of complexity to simplicity.
The point Kasparov makes is not that rationality is not beautiful in some way, but that it changes the idea of beauty in chess. A bold move, a risky move, a daring move has been valued in the world of chess. Chess, despite its rational reputation, has had an emotional and adventurous side. However, against computers--or even against humans aided by computers--such risks rarely succeed and thus they are devalued.
Chess changes. It becomes less quirky, less risky, and more rational. I don't think it wrong to say that chess becomes less human. Chess, in the age of computer chess, loses the valuation of a particularly human beauty, even if it might reflect an impeccably beautiful mathematical rationality.
It need not be that mathematical beauty is inferior to human beauty, as Rebecca suggests I must mean, but simply that the elimination of the human beauty as a meaningful option in chess is to be regretted.
II. Rebecca's second related point is to concede that chess players are internalizing the values of computer chess and thus playing more and more like computers. But, she argues this is not so new or so bad. Chess has changed before. New theories of chess emerge all the time. Why is this different? Why is this change, she might ask, the tipping point that makes chess less human?
I think the answer is the one given above. The values and approach to chess this particular change inaugurates take one element of chess--its rationality--and elevate it to the only relevant element of chess. All competing theories are judged by their ability to succeed over a hyper-rational strategy, and they will eventually be found wanting. Those who play chess (as opposed to making art with chess pieces) will succumb to the values of computerized chess. While earlier theories of chess may have aspired for complete dominance, only a purely rational computer chess can achieve that aim.
One of the most reflective essays on the fate of Human Being in an Inhuman Age is Gary Kasparov's NY Review of Books Essay, The Chess Master and the Computer.
Kasparov respects the power of computers and knows that there already exist computer programs that play Checkers in a way that is unbeatable. Chess is another story, and although IBM's Deep Blue bested him in 1997, the challenge of an unbeatable Chess program is extreme, if simply because there are over 10 to the 120th possible chess games, and most computers simply are not yet so powerful as to be able to master every game. That said, most store-bought computer chess machines will regularly beat grandmasters.
The real question the smart machines raise is not who will win, but how the intelligent machines change our human being and our human world. Kasparov has three fascinating observations on that question.
First, Kasparov argues that machines have changed the ways Chess is played and redefined what a good chess move and a well-played chess game looks like.
The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. 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. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) 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. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.
One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic.
The question is: is such a world less human?
Another change Kasparov identifies is that the availability of computer chess machines has reduced the advantage of age and experience.
The availability of millions of games at one’s fingertips in a database is also making the game’s best players younger and younger. Absorbing the thousands of essential patterns and opening moves used to take many years, a process indicative of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours to become an expert” theory as expounded in his recent book Outliers. (Gladwell’s earlier book, Blink, rehashed, if more creatively, much of the cognitive psychology material that is re-rehashed in Chess Metaphors.) Today’s teens, and increasingly pre-teens, can accelerate this process by plugging into a digitized archive of chess information and making full use of the superiority of the young mind to retain it all. In the pre-computer era, teenage grandmasters were rarities and almost always destined to play for the world championship. Bobby Fischer’s 1958 record of attaining the grandmaster title at fifteen was broken only in 1991. It has been broken twenty times since then, with the current record holder, Ukrainian Sergey Karjakin, having claimed the highest title at the nearly absurd age of twelve in 2002. Now twenty, Karjakin is among the world’s best, but like most of his modern wunderkind peers he’s no Fischer, who stood out head and shoulders above his peers—and soon enough above the rest of the chess world as well.
Aside from mortality, one of the essential features of human beings through history has been the benefit of wisdom acquired with age. But as the world values increasingly reason over insight and facts over judgment, the necessity of experience is supplanted by the acquisition of knowledge through computers.
A third consequence of the rise of computer chess is that genius and exceptional experience is effectively neutralized. Kasparov tells of his experience of two matches played against the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, at the time the world's highest ranked Chess Master. When Kasparov played him in regular timed chess, he bested Topalov 3-1. But when he played him in a match when both were allowed to consult a computer for assistance, the match ended in a 3-3 draw. It is not that computer-assisted chess nullifies human creativity: As Kasparov writes:
The computer could project the consequences of each move we considered, pointing out possible outcomes and countermoves we might otherwise have missed. With that taken care of for us, we could concentrate on strategic planning instead of spending so much time on calculations. Human creativity was even more paramount under these conditions.
And yet, the computer evened out the match nevertheless: "My advantage in calculating tactics had been nullified by the machine."
What Kasparov offers are three transformations of the modern world that the rise of artificial intelligence promise.
1) As computers set the standard for success, the world will value creativity and originality less and rationality ever more. Jaron Lanier has made similar arguments in his book You Are Not a Gadget.
2) The advantages of age and experience will be eroded and our already youth-worshipping culture will have fewer reasons than ever for respecting their elders.
3) Cheap and easy access to unlimited computer power will largely neutralize the genetic or social advantages of extraordinary memory or excellent schooling.
Other changes beckon as well, for good and for bad. And the overriding question remains: How to be Human in an increasingly Inhuman Age?