Taking stock, looking at the world and knowing how it’s evolving in real time can be hard sometimes. The last 50 years have been marked by an technology revolution so embedded in our everyday lives that it’s easy to forget how revolutionary it is.
Garry Kasparov makes an impressive statement in the book, Deep Thought, to reflect upon our changing times. He takes us through the kinds of questions that we can ask about technology and what we might expect from this rapidly changing world. It is a job for which he is well suited. He was being pitted against a team of computer scientists and their cutting-edge technology as one of the greatest ever chess players in history. Could their machines beat him? Kasparov’s sparring with IBM’s Deep Blue in the late 1990s settled that question.
Chess is an ancient game, and it’s had a place in Western culture for centuries. But while it’s admired by most people, it’s often from a safe distance. That’s probably down to the fact that chess has a certain reputation it just can’t shake.
In the West, chess is seen as a game for nerds. Typically, chess obsessives are thought of as having no life outside the 64 squares of the chess board.
Garry Kasparov, the journalist, has gone out of his way to question those biases. However, the media have tended to depict him and other chess players as quirky oddballs, considering all the interviews he has given where he talks about politics and history. But in reality they ‘re all average people with a special talent.
It’s hard to shift long-held cultural beliefs; chess players still linger at the bottom of any school social hierarchy.
But there are signs of gradual improvement the US, thanks to the introduction of school chess programs. Young children are discovering, without prejudice, that chess can actually be fun.
The American view of chess stands in great contrast to the situation in Russia. There, chess has long been revered. Russia was still a member of the Soviet Union when Kasparov was growing up. Chess was played professionally and promoted extensively. Accordingly, it never had the unflattering connections in the West. Then it had the same standing as any other common sport, like baseball in the United States.
In fact, the tradition of holding chess players and teachers in high regard goes back to Tsarist times. Even though many aristocrats were killed during the Russian Revolution, the aristocratic tradition of playing chess did not die out. Instead, the Communists cultivated and encouraged it. They even went so far as to exempt elite chess players from military service in the ongoing Russian civil war so they could participate in Soviet chess championships.
In the 1950s, when computer science took its first tentative steps, few people knew where this new technology would lead. Predictions of computer-controlled Utopian and Dystopian futures were popular. But, when you remember that the first personal computers came nowhere near being able to play chess, it was all a little far-fetched.
Scientists did try though. In 1956, a laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico developed the first chess-playing computer. The machine was called MANIAC 1, and it was one of the very first computers that had enough memory to store a chess program. It weighed about 1000 pounds.
That said, the computer’s capacity was still limited. The scientists had to use a reduced board of 36 squares, which involved doing away with the bishops. The computer ended up losing to an experienced player, even though they had made him play without a queen.
Yet the machine managed to beat a chess novice the same year. Artificial intelligence became the first time in history to beat a human in an intellectual game. Computers were strong enough to challenge grandmasters before too long. Moore’s law essentially describes the pace of change, which states the processing speeds of computers inevitably double every two years.
By 1977, computers could compete with the top 5% of human players. They tended to make occasional game-losing errors, but their overall strong defensive and tactical moves often countered this failing.
Additionally, a new algorithm, refined by computer scientists during the 1970s, made the world of difference.
It was called alpha-beta, and it allowed the computers to automatically reject any move that was less successful than the one considered at the time, reducing the number of moves it had to determine. As a result, machines were quicker in estimating future movements, and also had the ability to ‘think’ a few steps forward.
It’s not hard to imagine that the profession of supermarket cashier will soon be a thing of the past. After all, self-checkout machines are firmly establishing their place in supermarkets.
This example is indicative of a broader trend. Computers are putting humans out of work, especially those with jobs in the service industry.
Debates that pit humans against machines go back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when agricultural and manufacturing equipment started to replace human laborers. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, precisely engineered machines effectively made skilled laborers – such as watchmakers or laboratory assistants – obsolete.
Finally, Revolution Knowledge came riding in at the back of the internet’s advent. Millions of service and support workers were wiped out at a stroke; employees including bank tellers and travel agents found themselves increasingly replaced by e-services online.
It is surely a matter of time before machines start to nullify even the most prestigious professions. Yes, even doctors and lawyers. All that said, there’s no need to get sentimental over the fact that machines can now shoulder human toil. Technological progress has historically been a good thing.
Human civilization has developed in large part because we’ve used our inventions to reduce the need for human labor. As a result, we’ve seen increases in the quality of life and the advancement of human rights.
It is truly a sign of our privilege that we can live in air-conditioned rooms, flick through devices that give us access to all of humankind’s knowledge and still complain that manual labor is being eradicated.
This only means that we need to learn to adapt. It’s evident things don’t go back to the way they once were. For example, clerks, cashiers, and call center workers whose work has been replaced by artificial intelligence do not return to fabrication jobs. Instead, when they grow they will need to be guided into new types of technical and service jobs.
In September 2016, Kasparov visited a robotics event in Oxford where he was able to chat directly with a robot called Artie. Such talking robots may still seem pretty futuristic, but they are sure to become an essential aspect of daily life very soon as developments in artificial intelligence continue.
It’s long been held true that computers can come up with solutions, but unlike humans, they can’t formulate questions. But that’s no longer the case. Computers can already ask questions, but they can’t, as yet, know which questions are the important ones.
Any computer will ask you a question which is coded in it. It just needs a prompt and automated answer, in this case in the form of a query, that goes with it. This is how tools like the Google Assistant, or the Alexa Amazon work. However, even though the interaction appears real, it is basing on very simple data analysis in fact.
Scientists are now trying to see whether machines can formulate their own questions directly from the data they’ve harvested. They’ll no longer need a set of human prompts for triggering automated response-questions.
Machines may one day even advance beyond that. As artificial intelligence develops, they may surprise us not only with the data they produce but also by their methods.
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