Garry Kasparov

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Trump Adviser Stephen Miller is one of the true ideologues of the Administration, a dweeb eager to encourage a demagogue’s worst impulses.

In a 2016 Politico profile by Julie Ioffe, Miller said of his liberal high school that “a number of students lacked basic English skills,” and commented about his alma mater Duke that “many professors had radical beliefs and engaged in outrageous behavior.”

Now he’s the willing marionette of an Administration in which most seem to lack basic English skills, have radical beliefs and engage in outrageous behavior–a Pinocchio to Gestapo-ish Geppettos.

What’s worst about the bald-faced lies he offers on TV news shows as he did over the weekend is they’re meant to confer upon the occupant of the Oval Office an unimpeachable authoritarian status. The President’s powers here are beyond question,” he commented in immigration on ABC’s This Week, trying to cut a path for the Simon Cowell-ish strongman to do what he pleases with no dissent brooked.

In a smart Vox interview conducted by Alexander Bisley, Garry Kasparov reminds that the “U.S. President shouldn’t need to speak like a tyrant.” He also offers tips on how to stop the birth of dictatorship in America based on Russia’s descent under Putin. An excerpt:

Alexander Bisley:

What can Trump opponents do?

Garry Kasparov:

You have to reinforce the institutions, steadily and legally, and work through them. If you go too far, and react violently, it will only play into the hands of the Trump administration, which is already portraying all opposition as paid agitators and other ridiculousness straight from Putin’s playbook. When I talk about these things on Twitter or Facebook, I immediately receive a bunch of “Here too!” responses from people living in other authoritarian regimes, from Venezuela to Vietnam.

Riots will only frighten the “moderate middle” you will need as allies sooner or later. If Trump convinces them with lies that the opposition is controlled by dangerous thugs, you’re going to have eight years of Trump and another of his kind to follow. Stick to the facts, repeat them boldly and frequently, so his supporters see the would-be emperor has no bathrobe!

The courts are important, but things won’t really change unless enough Republicans start to see Trump as a liability to their fundraising and reelection chances. That could be quite soon if he can’t fulfill his many campaign promises. Making him look like a loser is crucial. Either the GOP will turn on him or he will be chastened and more likely to compromise. If a demagogue succeeds in claiming credit for wins and scapegoating his enemies for losses, he’s very hard to stop.

Trump will continue to push the limits, to find the cracks in the system that constrains him. America is finding out the hard way that much of its government is based on tradition and the honor system, and not explicit laws. There will be a crisis every day.

Everyone must do what they can themselves and not wait for others to act. If you want change, you have to initiate action, even at a personal level that might seem insignificant. As the motto of Soviet dissidents went: “Do what you must, and so be it.”•

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“Anything felt possible,” writes Garry Kasparov in the WSJ of the ebullient time a quarter century ago when it became apparent Soviet autocracy had failed and democracy seemed, at long last, to have triumphed. The walls came down, history supposedly ended, and it was only a matter of time until all nations succumbed to the new reality.

In 2016, with liberal governance in retreat, anything again feels possible, but in a different and chilling way.  

In a reversal of fortunes, in an unforced error, America would appear to have retroactively lost the Cold War, perhaps even World War II. The blissfully unaware, the political opportunists and the truly evil have conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Hope has never needed to be more audacious because this is no joke, it is not a test, we’re really on fire. 

From Kasparov on how the failure to address history left the demons breathing, if barely, waiting to revitalize and pounce once more:

It is difficult to describe what life in the U.S.S.R. was like to people in the free world today. This is not because repressive dictatorships are an anachronism people can’t imagine, like trying to tell your incredulous children that there was once a world without cellphones and the internet. The U.S.S.R. ceased to exist in 1991, but there are plenty of repressive, authoritarian regimes thriving in 2016. The difference, and I am sad to say it, is that the citizens of the free world don’t much care about dictatorships anymore, or about the 2.7 billion people who still live in them.

The words of John F. Kennedy in 1963 Berlin sound naive to most Americans today: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free,” he said. That for decades the U.S. government based effective foreign policy on such lofty ideals seems as distant as a world without iPhones.

Ronald Reagan’s warning that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction” was never meant to be put to the test, but it is being tested now. If anything, Reagan’s time frame of a generation was far too generous. The dramatic expansion of freedom that occurred 25 years ago may be coming undone in 25 months.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was the end of watch for the anti-Communist coalition formed by Harry Truman after World War II. A year later, baby boomer Bill Clinton was making jokes with Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin and it was time to party, not press the advantage. The U.S. had unrivaled global power and influence, more than at any other time in history. Yet instead of using it to shape a new global framework to protect and project the values of democracy and human rights—as Truman had done immediately to put Stalin in check—the free world acted as though the fight had been won once and for all.

Even worse, we made the same mistake in Russia and in many other newly independent states. We were so eager to embrace the bright future that we failed to address our dark past.•

A remote match via telephone versus David Letterman in 1989.


It was a galling affront, even unfathomable, to Garry Kasparov when it was said that machines would one day conquer humans in chess. As World Champion, he considered it his responsibility to protect the species from this indignity. He was shocked when he failed.

I wonder if the retired Russian grandmaster is even more stunned about the recent global turn of events, as numerous countries have tried to retreat from globalization, reviving the natavistic, xenophobic and isolationist tendencies associated with the dark forces of World War II and the Cold War, though this time the reliably noble are also in retreat, as is liberal democracy itself. Russia has returned to autocracy and the U.S. may not be too far behind. And the Kremlin, with hacks and leaks, had a hand in that latter outcome.

In an excellent Playboy interview conducted by Alexander Bisley, Kasparov speaks about the ghosts of yesterday’s politics now haunting the twenty-first century, saying, “The past always returns in one form or another. There are periods in which the past even becomes the dominating factor in the present. Right now we are going through a moment like that because we don’t have a vision for the future.” He also discusses what he believes will happen to Russia at the time of Putin’s inevitable fall from power.

The opening:


After Trump’s election, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a state-run news agency that “there were contacts” with the Trump team, saying “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage.” Do you believe Russia is responsible for Trump’s election?

Garry Kasparov:

The whole story of the rise of Donald Trump is extraordinary. Putin believes that if you’re strong enough and if your opponent is not responding, you can go as far as you want. For Putin, who’s always looking for an opportunity to show his strength and militancy, attacking the American political system was the highest prize of all. Now, President Barack Obama is very much reaping the harvest of his weak foreign policy because Russia tried to demonstrate its political might by attacking the very foundation of American democracy. It’s a fact that Russia definitely helped Donald Trump to be elected by revealing all these emails that were hacked, stolen from John Podesta and the DNC. Maybe Russia went even beyond that.


Extraordinarily, the NSA Director Michael Rogers said that there was “a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect.”

Garry Kasparov:

I agree that’s extraordinary. You have one of the top security chiefs of the United States pointing at Russia. Clearly it’s Russia. If this is correct, that means it comes as close as one can imagine to a declaration of war. The very mechanism of American democracy—the foundation of power—was in danger by interference of a hostile foreign power. And what did Obama do? Nothing.


Shouldn’t this be a bipartisan national security issue?

Garry Kasparov:

I’m surprised Chuck Schumer isn’t demanding a full-scale congressional investigation. Where are the Democrats?•

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Retired chess champion Garry Kasparov, a real-life John Henry, is still fighting machines, chiefly Vladimir Putin’s. The Russian autocrat has led his nation to re-embrace the failed aggressions of the twentieth century rather than create a modern state based on the German model, doing so in the manner of an underworld mob boss, a capo with nuclear capabilities. His most outspoken Russian-born critic sat for an interview with Erich Follath of Spiegel, expressly accusing President Obama and the West of appeasement, which seems more than a little hyperbolic. The opening:


Mr. Kasparov, you call Vladimir Putin the greatest threat to world peace. Don’t we need the Russian president’s help now more than ever to end wars and contain terrorism?

Garry Kasparov:

Russia is a mafia state today, and Putin is its top godfather. The regime is in trouble economically and can no longer offer anything to its citizens. That’s why Putin has to pursue an aggressive foreign policy, so he can serve his people the fairy tale of Russian pride and regaining its strength as a major power. But he uses fascist propaganda to do so. From Ukraine to Syria, he is behaving like the world’s new general and celebrating victories, while the American president sits on the sidelines and Europe sleeps. The West’s behavior toward Putin is political and moral capitulation.


Now you’re really exaggerating.

Garry Kasparov:

No, I’m not. People would have been shaking their heads in disbelief if someone had predicted, 15 months ago, that Putin would annex Crimea and grossly violate European postwar borders. Then came the expansion into eastern Ukraine, and now the direct military intervention in the Syrian war, on the side of mass murderer Bashar Assad. Putin needs wars to legitimize his position. It’s the only move he has left. And his appearance before the United Nations General Assembly in late September is typical for action and counter reaction.


What do you mean?

Garry Kasparov:

Putin spoke unabashedly about the importance of national sovereignty in Syria, a concept apparently near and dear to his heart, unless it comes to the sovereignty of Georgia, Ukraine or any other country in which he intervenes. Then he offered his cooperation, but without making any concrete concessions at all. And he didn’t have to, either. He knows what he can rely on. He has assets that are more valuable than words: He has tanks in Ukraine, fighter jets in Syria — and Barack Obama in the White House. His speech before the UN only an hour earlier was completely toothless. The West can’t come up with anything to deal with Moscow, except appeasement.•


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Following up the earlier post about computers and consciousness, here’s an excerpt from “Yes, Computers Can Think,” a 1997 New York Times article by Drew McDermott written in the wake of the machines conquering Kasparov:

“When people say that human grandmasters do not examine 200 million move sequences per second, as the computer does, I ask them, ‘How do you know?’ The answer is usually that human grandmasters are not aware of considering so many options. But humans are unaware of almost everything that goes on in our minds.

I tend to agree that grandmasters search in a different way than Deep Blue does, but whatever method they use, if done by a computer, would seem equally ‘blind.’

For example, some scientists believe that the masters’ skill comes from an ability to compare their current position against, say, 10,000 positions they’ve studied. We call their behavior insightful because they are unaware of the details; the right position among the 10,000 ‘just occurs to them.’ If a computer did the same thing, the trick would be revealed; we could examine its data to see how laboriously it checks the 10,000 positions. Still, if the unconscious version yields intelligent results, and the explicit algorithmic version yields essentially the same results, are not both methods intelligent?

So what shall we say about Deep Blue? How about: It’s a ‘little bit’ intelligent. Yes, its computations differ in detail from a human grandmaster’s. But then, human grandmasters differ from one another in many ways.

A log of the machine’s computations is perfectly intelligible to chess masters; they speak the same language, as it were. That’s why the I.B.M. team refused to give the game logs to Mr. Kasparov during the match: It would have been the same as bugging the hotel room where the computer ‘discussed’ strategy with his seconds.

Saying that Deep Blue doesn’t really think is like saying an airplane doesn’t really fly because it doesn’t flap its wings.

Of course, this advance in artificial intelligence does not indicate that any Grand Unified Theory of Thought is on the horizon. As the field has matured, it has focused more and more on incremental progress, while worrying less and less about some magic solution to all the problems of intelligence. There are fascinating questions about why we are unaware of so much that goes on in our brains, and why our awareness is the way it is. But we can answer a lot of questions about thinking before we need to answer questions about awareness.

It is entirely possible that computers will come to seem alive before they come to seem intelligent. The kind of computing power that fuels Deep Blue will also lead to improved sensors, wheels and grippers that will allow machines to react in a more sophisticated way to things in their environment, including us. They won’t seem intelligent, but we may think of them as a weird kind of animal — one that can play a very good game of chess.”

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Garry Kasparov held off machines but only for so long. He defeated Deep Thought in 1989, and believed a computer could never best him. But by 1997 Deep Blue turned him–and humanity–into an also-ran in some key ways. The chess master couldn’t believe it at first–he assumed his opponent was manipulated by humans behind the scene, like the Mechanical Turk, the faux chess-playing machine from the 18th century. But no sleight of hand was needed.

Below are the openings of three Bruce Weber New York Times articles written during the Kasparov-Deep Blue matchup which chart the rise of the machines.


From “Computer Defeats Kasparov, Stunning the Chess Experts” on May 5:

“Responding to defeat with the pride and tenacity of a champion, the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue drew even yesterday in its match against Garry Kasparov, the world’s best human chess player, winning the second of their six games and stunning many chess experts with its strategy.

Joel Benjamin, the grandmaster who works with the Deep Blue team, declared breathlessly: ‘This was not a computer-style game. This was real chess!’

He was seconded by others.

‘Nice style!’ said Susan Polgar, the women’s world champion. ‘Really impressive. The computer played a champion’s style, like Karpov,’ she continued, referring to Anatoly Karpov, a former world champion who is widely regarded as second in strength only to Mr. Kasparov. ‘Deep Blue made many moves that were based on understanding chess, on feeling the position. We all thought computers couldn’t do that.'”


From “Wary Kasparov and Deep Blue Draw Game 3” on May 7: 

“Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, opened the third game of his six-game match against the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue yesterday in peculiar fashion, by moving his queen’s pawn forward a single square. Huh?

‘I think we have a new opening move,’ said Yasser Seirawan, a grandmaster providing live commentary on the match. ‘What should we call it?’

Mike Valvo, an international master who is a commentator, said, ‘The computer has caused Garry to act in strange ways.’

Indeed it has. Mr. Kasparov, who swiftly became more conventional and subtle in his play, went on to a draw with Deep Blue, leaving the score of Man vs. Machine at 1 1/2 apiece. (A draw is worth half a point to each player.) But it is clear that after his loss in Game 2 on Sunday, in which he resigned after 45 moves, Mr. Kasparov does not yet have a handle on Deep Blue’s predilections, and that he is still struggling to elicit them.”


From “Swift and Slashing, Computer Topples Kasparov” on May 12:

“In brisk and brutal fashion, the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue unseated humanity, at least temporarily, as the finest chess playing entity on the planet yesterday, when Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, resigned the sixth and final game of the match after just 19 moves, saying, ‘I lost my fighting spirit.’

The unexpectedly swift denouement to the bitterly fought contest came as a surprise, because until yesterday Mr. Kasparov had been able to summon the wherewithal to match Deep Blue gambit for gambit.

The manner of the conclusion overshadowed the debate over the meaning of the computer’s success. Grandmasters and computer experts alike went from praising the match as a great experiment, invaluable to both science and chess (if a temporary blow to the collective ego of the human race) to smacking their foreheads in amazement at the champion’s abrupt crumpling.

‘It had the impact of a Greek tragedy,’ said Monty Newborn, chairman of the chess committee for the Association for Computing, which was responsible for officiating the match.

It was the second victory of the match for the computer — there were three draws — making the final score 3 1/2 to 2 1/2, the first time any chess champion has been beaten by a machine in a traditional match. Mr. Kasparov, 34, retains his title, which he has held since 1985, but the loss was nonetheless unprecedented in his career; he has never before lost a multigame match against an individual opponent.

Afterward, he was both bitter at what he perceived to be unfair advantages enjoyed by the computer and, in his word, ashamed of his poor performance yesterday.

‘I was not in the mood of playing at all,’ he said, adding that after Game 5 on Saturday, he had become so dispirited that he felt the match was already over. Asked why, he said: ‘I’m a human being. When I see something that is well beyond my understanding, I’m afraid.'”

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Garry Kasparov is the John Henry of the Computer Age, “dying” on behalf of us all in a race against a machine despite his utter confidence in the efficacy of humankind. But even before computers were in the room, Bobby Fischer was likewise defeated by a machine, and it was him, the string of code he possessed off by just a little, just enough. He could make plans, but he didn’t plan on a ghost in the machine. There was only one person Fischer couldn’t beat, and it was himself. The opening of Ralph Ginzburg’s 1962 Harper’s article, “Portrait of a Genius As a Young Chess Master“:

“RUSSIA’S traditional hold on World Championships in chess is about to be challenged by the United States in the person of an eighteen-year-old boy from Brooklyn named Bobby Fischer. Bobby has been United States Chess Champion for four years. He won the title at the age of fourteen, the youngest player ever to do so. He has since successfully defended his title three times and has won virtually every major chess title in the country.

In an international tournament at Bled, Yugoslavia, last summer, he astonished the chess world by defeating Russia’s Mikhail Tal in his only game against this former World Champion. The present World Champion, Mikhail Botvinnik, did not participate in the tournament. Fischer is aching to play Botvinnik. ‘I know that I deserve to be World Champion and I know I can beat Botvinnik,’ he has said. ‘There’s no one alive I can’t beat.’

Fischer may have his chance early in 1963 when the triennial chess World Championship will be played. He will first have to win two preliminary international tournaments, the Inter-Zonal and the Candidates, in 1962. Many of America’s leading chess authorities agree with Lisa Lane, the twenty-four-year-old Women’s Chess Champion of the United States. ‘I’m sure that Bobby can beat Botvinnik,’ she has said. ‘There’s never before been a chess player with such a thorough knowledge of the intricacies of the game and such an absolutely indomitable will to win. I think Bobby is the greatest player that ever lived.’

John W. Collins columnist for Chess Life and Chess Review and one of the country’s most highly respected chess annotators, has written: ‘Bobby is the finest chess player this Country ever produced. His memory for the moves, his brilliance in dreaming up combinations, and his fierce determination to win are uncanny. Not only will I predict his triumph over Botvinnik but I’ll go further and say that he’ll probably be the greatest chess player that ever lived.'”

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Usain Bolt runs really fast, for a human. Slow for a sheep.

Similarly, humans play chess really well for humans, but we’re inferior when competing on a wider playing field, when AI is introduced. That means we must redefine the way we view our role in the world.

Before the shift was complete and computers became our partners–our betters, in some unnerving ways–Garry Kasparov still had a fighting chance and so did you and I. At the end of the 1980s, the chess champion was able to stave off the onslaught, if only for a little while longer, when challenged by Deep Thought. From an article by Harold C. Schonberg in the October 23, 1989 New York Times:

Yesterday Gary Kasparov, the world chess champion, played Deep Thought, the world computer chess champion, in a two-game match. He won both games handily, to nobody’s surprise, including his own.

Two hours before the start of the first game, held at the New York Academy of Art at 419 Lafayette Street in Manhattan, he held a conference for some 75 journalists representing news organizations all over the world. They were attracted to the event because of the possibility of an upset and the philosophical problems an upset would cause. Deep Thought, after all, has recently been beating grandmasters. Does this mean that the era of human chess supremacy is drawing to a close?

Yes, in the opinion of computer and chess experts.

The time is rapidly coming, all believe, when chess computers will be operating with a precision, rapidity and completeness of information that will far eclipse anything the human mind can do. In three to five years, Deep Thought will be succeeded by a computer with a thousand times its strength and rapidity. And computers scanning a million million positions a second are less than 10 years away. As for the creativity, intuition and brilliance of the great players, chess computers have already demonstrated that they can dream up moves that make even professionals gasp with admiration. It may be necessary to hold championship chess matches for computers and separate ones for humans. …

Mr. Kasparov, unlike many of the experts, was even doubtful that a computer could ever play with the imagination and creativity of a human, though he did look ahead to the next generation of computers and shuddered at what might be coming. Deep Thought can scan 720,000 positions a second. The creators of Deep Thought have developed plans for a machine that can scan a billion positions a second, and it may be ready in five years.

‘That means,’ grinned Mr. Kasparov, ‘that I can be champion for five more years.’ More seriously, he continued: ‘But I can’t visualize living with the knowledge that a computer is stronger than the human mind. I had to challenge Deep Thought for this match, to protect the human race.'”


“What you have here is the phenomenon of how we define ourselves in relationship to the machine”:

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Garry Kasparov’s defeat at the hands–well, not exactly hands–of Deep Blue was supposed to have delivered a message to humans that we needed to dedicate ourselves to other things–but the coup de grace was ignored. In fact, computers have only enhanced our chess acumen, making it clear that thus far a hybrid is better than either carbon or silicon alone. In the wake of Computer Age child Magnus Carlsen becoming the greatest human player on Earth, Christopher Chabris and David Goodman of the Wall Street Journal look at the surprising resilience of chess in these digital times. The opening:

“In the world chess championship match that ended Friday in India, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, the cool, charismatic 22-year-old challenger and the highest-rated player in chess history, defeated local hero Viswanathan Anand, the 43-year-old champion. Mr. Carlsen’s winning score of three wins and seven draws will cement his place among the game’s all-time greats. But his success also illustrates a paradoxical development: Chess-playing computers, far from revealing the limits of human ability, have actually pushed it to new heights.

The last chess match to get as much publicity as Mr. Carlsen’s triumph was the 1997 contest between then-champion Garry Kasparov and International Business Machines Corp.’s Deep Blue computer in New York City. Some observers saw that battle as a historic test for human intelligence. The outcome could be seen as an ‘early indication of how well our species might maintain its identity, let alone its superiority, in the years and centuries to come,’ wrote Steven Levy in a Newsweek cover story titled ‘The Brain’s Last Stand.’ 

But after Mr. Kasparov lost to Deep Blue in dramatic fashion, a funny thing happened: nothing.”•


“In Norway, you’ve got two big sports–chess and sadness”:

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Garry Kasparov is a real-life John Henry, having been felled by the steam-powered hammer of IBM’s Deep Blue. He was the chess king as we were being dethroned by automation, as computers came to rule games–and other things. Kasparov now dabbles in Putin-punching and writing. I’m glad he does the former and wish he would do more of the latter. He’s a very gifted writer.

Below is a recent interview about chess and politics the just-departed David Frost did with the chess champ.

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Blake Masters’ blog has ideas about and notes from Peter Thiel’s recent Stanford address, “The Future of Legal Technology.” From an exchange during the audience Q&A, which points out, among other things, that we can sometimes mistake error for genius:


What is your take on building machines that work just like the human brain?

Peter Thiel: 

If you could model the human brain perfectly, you can probably build a machine version of it. There are all sorts of questions about whether this is possible.

The alternative path, especially in the short term, is smart but not AI-smart computers, like chess computers. We didn’t model the human brain to create these systems. They crunch moves. They play differently and better than humans. But they use the same processes. So most AI that we’ll see, at least first, is likely to be soft AI that’s decidedly non-human.


But chess computers aren’t even soft AI, right? They are all programmed. If we could just have enough time to crunch the moves and look at the code, we’d know what/s going on, right? So their moves are perfectly predictable. 

Peter Thiel: 

Theoretically, chess computers are predictable. In practice, they aren’t. Arguably it’s the same with humans. We’re all made of atoms. Per quantum mechanics and physics, all our behavior is theoretically predictable. That doesn’t mean you could ever really do it. 


There’s the anecdote of Kasparov resigning when Deep Blue made a bizarre move that he fatalistically interpreted as a sign that the computer had worked dozens of moves ahead. In reality the move was caused by a bug. 

Peter Thiel: 

Well… I know Kasparov pretty well. There are a lot of things that he’d say happened there…” (Thanks Browser.)

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An excerpt from “Today’s Computers, Intelligent Machines and Our Future,” an essay by roboticist Hans Moravec from 1978, before Deep Blue was beating Kasparov in chess and Watson was wowing Trebek on Jeopardy!: 

“In the thirty years since then computers have become vastly more capable, but the goal of human performance in most areas seems as elusive as ever, in spite of a great deal of effort. The last ten years, in particular, has seen thousands of people years devoted directly to the problem, referred to as Artificial Intelligence or AI. Attempts have been made to develop computer programs which do mathematics, computer programming and common sense reasoning, are able to understand natural languages and interpret scenes seen through cameras and spoken language heard through microphones and to play games humans find challenging.

 There has been some progress. Samuel’s checker program can occasionally beat checker champions. Chess programs regularly play at good amateur level, and in March 1977 a chess program from Northwestern University, running on a CDC Cyber-176 (which is about 20 times as fast as previous computers used to play chess) won the Minnesota Open Championship, against a slate of class A and expert players. A ten year effort at MIT has produced a system, Mathlab, capable of doing symbolic algebra, trigonometry and calculus operations better in many ways than most humans experienced in those fields. Programs exist which can understand English sentences with restricted grammar and vocabulary, given the letter sequence, or interpret spoken commands from hundred word vocabularies. Some can do very simple visual inspection tasks, such as deciding whether or not a screw is at the end of a shaft. The most difficult tasks to automate, for which computer performance to date has been most disappointing, are those that humans do most naturally, such as seeing, hearing and common sense reasoning. 

A major reason for the difficulty has become very clear to me in the course of my work on computer vision. It is simply that the machines with which we are working are still a hundred thousand to a million times too slow to match the performance of human nervous systems in those functions for which humans are specially wired. This enormous discrepancy is distorting our work, creating problems where there are none, making others impossibly difficult, and generally causing effort to be misdirected.”

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Bobby Fischer as the smiling, chess-playing child.

Before he became an unstable, ranting anti-Semitic hermit, Bobby Fischer was one of the most revered people on the planet. His legendary chess matches with Russian champion Boris Spassky during the height of the Cold War were televised to a rapt audience of millions. Victory meant the world was at Fischer’s feet, but he punted and disappeared from the game for two decades. He emerged for a big-money rematch against Spassky in 1992 which had none of the gravitas of the original contest–it was merely a cash grab by two players past their prime who were trading on nostalgia. In a new article in the New York Review of Books, Garry Kasparov, an excellent writer as well as a former world chess champion, opines on Fischer’s sad tale of being moved from king to pawn by mental illness. An excerpt about Fischer’s uneasy return to the spotlight in the ’90s:

“It was therefore quite a shock to see the real live Bobby Fischer reappear in 1992, followed by the first Fischer chess game in twenty years, followed by twenty-nine more. Lured out of self-imposed isolation by a chance to face his old rival Spassky on the twentieth anniversary of their world championship match—and by a $5 million prize fund—a heavy and bearded Fischer appeared before the world in a resort in Yugoslavia, a nation in the process of being bloodily torn apart.

The circumstances were bizarre. The sudden return, the backdrop of war, a shady banker and arms dealer as a sponsor. But it was Fischer! One could not believe it. The chess displayed by Fischer and Spassky in Svefi Stefan and Belgrade was predictably sloppy, although there were a few flashes of the old Bobby brilliance. But was this really a return, or would he disappear just as quickly as he had appeared? And what to make of the strange things Fischer was doing at the press conferences? America’s great champion spitting on a cable from the US government? Saying he hadn’t played in twenty years because he had been ‘blacklisted…by world Jewry’? Accusing Karpov and me of prearranging all our games? You had to look away, but you could not.

Even in his prime there were concerns about Fischer’s stability, during a lifetime of outbursts and provocations. Then there were the tales from his two decades away from the board, rumors that made their way around the chess world. That he was impoverished, that he had become a religious fanatic, that he was handing out anti-Semitic literature in the streets of Los Angeles. It all seemed too fantastic, too much in line with all the stories of chess driving people mad—or mad people playing chess—that have found such a good home in literature.”

Dick Cavett interviews Fischer in 1971, before the shocking decline:

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In 1997, Garry Kasparov didn't believe Deep Blue had defeated him fairly. See the documentary "Game Over" to learn more.

I can’t claim to be the world’s biggest chess fan, but I’m fascinated by Garry Kasparov’s article “The Chess Master and His Computer” in the New York Review of Books. The legendary champion, who famously lost a match to IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, looks at the intersection of chess and AI from just about every angle possible–and does so brilliantly. An excerpt about the ramifications of the availability of top-flight chess software:

“There have been many unintended consequences, both positive and negative, of the rapid proliferation of powerful chess software. Kids love computers and take to them naturally, so it’s no surprise that the same is true of the combination of chess and computers. With the introduction of super-powerful software it became possible for a youngster to have a top-level opponent at home instead of need ing a professional trainer from an early age. Countries with little by way of chess tradition and few available coaches can now produce prodigies. I am in fact coaching one of them this year, nineteen-year-old Magnus Carlsen, from Norway, where relatively little chess is played.

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.”

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