Kasparov on the Brain

* Garry Kasparov, Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins (London: John Murray, 2017)
* Chris Beckett, The Holy Machine (London: Corvus, 2010)

Two of the random things I read on holiday featured questions about artificial intelligence. I read The Holy Machine because I’d enjoyed Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden trilogy. It’s about a man who falls in love with a robot, and I thought it did an interesting job of portraying how a computer mind might come to something like consciousness, not least because it portrayed this as both very limited and fractured, and yet also Messianically profound.
      I think I have already let on that I am a bit of a chess fan. I am not a strong player at all, but I find the game and its players fascinating. Recently, in spite of the raucous mockery of my family, I was absorbed in the live internet feed from the St Louis Rapid and Blitz tournament, in which former world champion Garry Kasparov came out of retirement. Kasparov vs Navara in rapid chess (approximately 30 minutes each) was so dramatic.
      Kasparov’s book is good on how chess has been the testing ground for the progress of computer thinking and artificial intelligence, and thus for the definition of thinking and intelligence themselves. The battle to determine the importance of brute-strength calculation (white-does-this then black-does-that then…) versus the importance of imagination and intuition (trying to teach the computer more abstract concepts of chess positioning, and how to be creative) is not just a practical one for chess. It plays out questions about our own minds, what sort of engines they are and how they operate.


Kasparov himself is a fascinating case. He is at pains, in the book, to remind us that his years as world champion were the result of intense preparation, excellent memory, rigorous study of the underlying principles at work in his favourite positions. This, I think, is to counteract his reputation as the Beast of Baku (he says he didn’t like that nickname), who dominated by force of will and a mercurial, aggressive imagination. Surely he did have something other than the power to learn and calculate, though, an emotional constitution (for example) that spurred him to fight not just at the board but also as he studied.
      Emotions, he points out, can have debilitating effects on a human but never have such effects on a computer. He describes some of the shocks and frustrations of his matches against the IBM computer Deep Blue, one of which resulted in a famous defeat. This is the heart of the book, and I’d have enjoyed even more of the detail of that story. However, the book has other things to focus on. For example, Kasparov develops a fairly optimistic vision of the future of artificial intelligence. After all, chess is different now that computer programs (even cheap ones) are better than any human will ever be, but it still seems to be going strong.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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