I enjoyed this article on the New York Review of Books website, excerpting an essay by the chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov from the book Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind. In it, Kasparov talks a little about the ways the game of chess has changed, in the era in which computers have been consistently able to defeat top human players. I particularly liked this quote, about his own loss to IBM’s Big Blue in 1997:
It was an impressive achievement, of course, and a human achievement by the members of the IBM team, but Deep Blue was only intelligent the way your programmable alarm clock is intelligent. Not that losing to a $10 million alarm clock made me feel any better.
It’s rare to find well-reasoned articles on the way artificial intelligence affects our culture; the sensational is always so close at hand, and the real is so hard to get at, who can blame writers under time pressure for pointing to Terminator scenarios over… well, subtle changes in the way a thousand-year old board game is taught, for instance? You could call the comparison to an alarm clock sour grapes, but it seems pretty accurate. He observes very saliently, for instance, that Big Blue worked largely by analyzing a database of games played by human players. I think Kasparov has unique credentials for discussing the difference between the way humans and computers “think”. But what I find most refreshing is that he’s more interested in seeing the present than in seeing the future.
Stories about artificial intelligence running wild can be good literature, just like Frankenstein or Pygmalion made good treatments of the same themes. Meanwhile, though, are we any nearer to an operational definition of intelligence than we were a hundred years ago? Has our experience solidified the Turing test and Kurzweil’s “singularity” into meaningful milestones, or just atomized them into ideological mist? I worry that we’re being led to ask the wrong questions. While we’re waiting for the science-fiction scenario where computers gain their own intelligence, they’re already being used to impose new systems of authority over ours. Maybe we ought to listen to what chess players have to say about the experience.