General thoughts

Human Versus Machine

In 1996, World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov was undoubtedly the most famous chess player in the world. On February 10th of the same year, in Philadelphia, following many months of reminding the public of his supreme dominance, he sat down to face an opponent called ‘Deep Blue’.

This wasn’t an ordinary opponent of course, this was a computer created by IBM and considered in those days to be the most advanced computer in the world. The idea was to have 6 chess games in total – the winner of the match having the majority of victories. On the machine side there was a team of chess experts and programmemers manually altering the software between the games. On Kasparov’s side he only had his IQ of 190. In this match Kasparov won 4–2. Following this triumph of human versus machine, Kasparov wasn’t slow in coming forward as to his secret for success. “I knew enough to put the computer in misery”, he claimed to NewsWeek in May that year.

At the same time, the IBM team went back to the drawing board. They felt that their machine was sub-optimal and if they could work hard for many months, using the increasingly powerful computer capability they had, they could potentially win. They installed a Grandmaster player as part of the team, a guy called Joel Benjamin, who was basically there to constantly challenge the new versions of the machine. After several months, Grandmaster Benjamin stated that, “When I play the machine now, I can no longer use an anti-computer strategy to pick apart its weaknesses, that’s why I feel it has a real chance to win.” Kasparov was told about this statement in the NewsWeek interview and had a fairly blunt response. “This is crap.”

The following year a re-match was announced and on the 3rd May 1997 in New York, the human/machine battle was re-surfaced in the same format of 6 games. The first game was won by Kasparov in 45 moves, however it was the 44th move that lingered in Kasparov’s mind. Despite his victory, he couldn’t work out why a computer would have made the move it did. He attributed the counterintuitive play to “superior intelligence” and this concerned him greatly leading into the second game the following day. Many years after, the full truth came out – but we’ll get to that later.

This second game on the 4th May 1997 was to become the most famous chess games in history. The game progressed on a fairly even level until one particular move by Deep Blue which repositioned one of the bishops to the square ‘e4’. At that point, the blatantly obvious moves available were to take several pawns off the table and attack Kasparov’s queen. The actual chosen move however, was a move that no human would have been able to conceive, unless they were able to process 200 million combinations every second, which sadly for Kasparov the new and improved Deep Blue could do easily.

With the 44th move of the previous day playing on his mind constantly, Kasparov gradually broke down and, over the next set of moves, became increasingly upset with himself and the entire process. Eventually he resigned the game and accused IBM of cheating. His on-going mood negatively impacted the remaining 4 games and he eventually lost the entire match. The machine had beaten the human.

Following this, Kasparov was very public about his claims that IBM had cheated in some way. He demanded the log files of every decision, stating that, “A computer wouldn’t have made moves like that”.

During the remainder of the year, in the face of public claims of his demise, Kasparov became more and more interested in the human versus machine subject and he invested heavily into something he termed “Advanced Chess”. This was a new version of chess that allowed human players to use a computer as an assistant.

Over time, Advanced Chess had an offspring called “Freestyle Chess”. This version meant that you could use multiple people and multiple computer programmes against your opponent. The “player” was called a “centaur” and, as it happens, in 2014 the Freestyle Chess champion was a centaur named “Intagrand” made up of a team of British players and numerous software applications.

Throughout many matches, the results clearly showed that centaurs were far more successful than only a human, or only a machine. It turned out that the most optimal combination is both, rather than one or the other.

I am fascinated by this progress and I monitor it closely. Not necessarily because I’m really into chess, but instead because I look at this situation and wonder how it could impact other sports and, in fact, other industries. To this end, I’ve written about my concept of Super Olympics in “28 Thoughts On Digital Revolution”, explaining my theory that athletes could use any augmentation they like. A bionic arm for a discus thrower, or maybe zoom-able contact lenses for the rifle shooters?

But how about if human/machine augmentation could positively impact how surgery is carried out in hospitals? How about the beneficial impact in piloting airlines? The educational impact on school teachers? Or maybe Judges in a court of law? All of these professions could potentially benefit from machine assistance that knows everything that has happened before, everything that is happening now and the probabilities of everything that is yet to come – in addition to the human nuances. If it really is the case that a combination of humans and machinery provides the most beneficial outcomes, surely there is a major opportunity in almost every industry vertical?

On one hand this provides a huge potential set of disruptions, but conversely it shows where the major innovations could happen. In reality though, most would observe this story as one about chess. It requires a step-change in thought expansion to translate it across to other areas. This is what many leading innovators do. They can see the developments in one sector and conceptualise the benefit in others.

But, going back to the 3rd May 1997, the twist in the tale is this: the 44th move that day was actually a randomly generated move. The senior programmemer of Deep Blue, many years later admitted that the machine could not work out the next best move, so it took one at random. This was a bug in the software. A flaw rather than a feature. Of all the things Kasparov had considered when playing a computer, this was not one of them.

The reason that disruptors can fundamentally re-define market places is because they are able to think expansively. The reason Kasparov lost was due to his inability to do so. Kasparov was a victim of limited thought. That’s what lost him the game. He interpreted the stimulus, incorrectly reasoned the logic and inadvertently reached conclusions that cost him his crown. Literally and metaphorically.

I truly believe that there are multitudes of opportunities of success, however we define it, provided that we’re able to expand the way we think about the concepts and the contexts we come in contact with.