The Human Side of AI

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Book review of ‘Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins’


Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins

Garry Kasparov

John Murray

288 pages; Rs 599

February 10, 1996 is a milestone in the history of humans versus machines. That was the day Deep Blue, a machine, beat Garry Kasparov, the reigning world champion of chess. The day machines conquered the cognitive skills of humankind, skills that were believed to be uniquely human. The day machines proved to be better than humans in evaluating more than trillions of possible decision paths to choose the most optimum one. The day machines passed the “Turing test” of fooling humans into thinking it is human too. The day it became clear to the world that there is nothing artificial about artificial intelligence. This in essence is the story of Deep Thinking by Garry Kasparov.

Chess is often hailed as the ultimate test of human intelligence and cognitive skills. The battle between a machine and one of the greatest chess champions in human history ought to be the story of the final frontiers in this battle. A machine won this battle more than two decades ago. Yet, why has it taken this long for the world to realise that livelihoods are about to be usurped by computers? Mr Kasparov provides a historical context in his book. In the early 20th century in New York, the elevator operator’s union was 17,000 strong. The technology for automatic elevators existed since 1900. The union prevented the adoption of automatic elevators for fear of their jobs. In 1945, the elevator operators went on a strike and thousands of people were forced to climb endless stairs, including in the then tallest building in the world — Empire State. The elevator industry launched a massive public relations (PR) initiative that capitalised on people’s sufferings from the strike and ushered in automatic elevators. Mr Kasparov argues that something similar is happening today in the world of artificial intelligence; technology that has been around for several decades but is now being put to use, thanks to a huge PR push by Tesla, driverless cars, voice assistants and other such technological advances.

At a time when the world is confronted with fears of robots taking over human jobs and plunging societies into unrest, this book is a grim reminder of the infinite limits of technological prowess and the futility in fighting it. While the book is anchored in Mr Kasparov’s infamous loss to IBM’s Deep Blue computer in a chess match series two decades ago, it also weaves a larger narrative of humans versus machines and its attendant issues. Mr Kasparov’s erudition shines through the book as he wades through history, sociology, technology, and human psychology to paint a complete picture of this important issue the world at large is facing. He is also unambiguously clear which side he is on when he says colourfully, “Romanticising loss of jobs to technology is little better than complaining that antibiotics put too many grave diggers out of work.”

The book does not disappoint ardent chess enthusiasts. Nearly 100 of the 260 pages of the book are about pawn sacrifices, Reti openings, king queen versus king rook end games, tricks to outmanoeuvre the machine and so on, in chapters with such enticing titles as “The board is in flames”. Mr Kasparov analyses that fateful loss to Deep Blue for the first time in this book and reveals how he accepted defeat in game two even though he was in a position of draw, which he realised only later. It is both a tragic and delightful irony that even the world’s greatest chess champion is susceptible to committing costly mistakes at critical junctures only because he is a human and not a machine. Mr Kasparov also admits and lives up to his reputation of being a sore loser when he cites everything from espionage, human mistakes and outright cheating as plausible reasons for his defeat to Deep Blue.

Mr Kasparov also delves into issues of privacy and Orwellian states aided by technology. He posits that our lives are being converted into data that can be mined to intrude but that is of our own volition. He argues that eventually the innate human desire for efficiency and convenience will trump a “vague desire for privacy”. His maxim for the privacy debate is that “privacy is dying, so transparency must increase” Though it is unclear how and who will ensure transparency in an Orwellian state.

Mr Kasparov then turns philosopher to explore concepts of wisdom and knowledge to understand if there can ever be a natural ceiling to what extent machines can emulate humans. Machines cannot dream, not even in sleep mode, he jokes.

There are 300 billion possible ways to play just the first four moves of a chess game. A typical chess game lasts 40 moves. If a machine could be trained to analyse such a gargantuan number of decision trees and beat the world’s greatest human chess expert two decades ago, why is it a surprise that machines can drive cars today?

The book talks about how one of the lead scientists in IBM’s Deep Blue team is now building intelligent algorithms for a hedge fund to make investments in the stock markets that can replace hundreds of investment experts, paid millions of dollars each, to do the same job. There is no reason this review of Deep Thinking could not be written by a machine. Or perhaps a machine cannot adequately express both the sheer joy and bursts of frustrations in reading a book that beautifully articulates the enormity of the battle of human versus machine and its imminent impact on humankind but with some pointless sojourns. Hopefully!

Published on 28 August, 2017 in Business Standard