Garry Kasparov is arguably the greatest chess player of all time. From 1986 until his retirement in 2005, he was ranked world No 1. He is also a leading human rights activist and is probably close to the top of Vladimir Putin’s hitlist, not least because he tried to run against him for the Russian presidency in 2007. But for people who are interested only in technology, Kasparov is probably best known as the first world champion to be beaten by a machine. In 1997, in a famous six-game match with the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, he lost 3½-2½.
The passage of time has mellowed Kasparov and his reflections on the match and its outcome are more thoughtful, measured and insightful than I had expected from the opening chapters of the book. His initial thoughts about the implications of AI seemed banal and predictable. “Romanticising the loss of jobs to technology,” he writes on page 42, “is little better than complaining that antibiotics put too many gravediggers out of work.” The transfer of labour from humans to our inventions “is nothing less than the history of civilisation”. And the early Kasparov sounds like a technological determinist on steroids. “Even if it were possible to mandate slowing down the development and implementation of intelligent machines,” he writes, “it would only ease the pain for a few for a little while and make the situations worse for everyone in the long run.” And so on.
Yet by the end of the book, he has arrived at a more enlightened view of machine intelligence than most people in the tech industry, who are obsessed with machines that will replace people. Kasparov was an early enthusiast for chess-playing computers and indeed did much to foster the technology that enables every child nowadays to learn to play against a grandmaster-level virtual opponent. In the end, the technology he inspired defeated him. But the message he bears is that the really intelligent approach is not to rail against the machine for being better than we are at some things, but to celebrate its capacity to augment our human capabilities. And therein lies the beginning of wisdom in these matters.
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