Man, Machine, Chess: A Fascinating Slice of Tech History


My thoughts on the book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins by Garry Kasparov

In the summers of 1997, I was still in school, that this significant milestone in the history of computing and intelligent devices was achieved. For the first time, a computer defeated a reigning world champion in a classical game under tournament regulations. In May 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue won the six game match 3.5/2.5 against Garry Kasparov, the then undefeated world champion five times in a row. The much-publicized match, touted as ‘The Brain’s Last Stand‘, was the ultimate “Man vs. Machine” event – this time an intellectual battle rather than a physical one. The world has already accepted that machines are much better than us on physical tasks, but thinking and intellect was a man’s domain no machine could intrude. And what better than Chess, a game that tests one’s fluid intelligence, processing speed, short-term memory, planning, pattern recognition abilities and comprehension knowledge, to represent cognitive abilities machine would find difficult to match.

Was it really man vs machine when the machine itself was a human endeavor? Was it still man vs man, albeit, old methods vs. new methods? Was it a victory of Deep Blue or the accomplished team behind it (most notably Feng-hsiung Hsu and Murray Campbell, among others)?

Lot has been written about the match – there are various books and documentaries on this topic – however, this book is as authentic as it can get, direct from the person who dueled with Deep Blue. It starts with the history of chess playing machines, their evolution with time, the improvements and setbacks, all leading to a very engaging account of the most famous chess match ever. All along, Garry also talks about technology and its impact on society and humans, making this book not just about chess, but much more. Also, there are many interesting anecdotes about chess and chess history interwoven in the narrative.

The first match of the Garry vs. Deep Blue saga was held in Philadelphia in 1996. It was a six game match which Garry won 4/2. As he laments in the book, although he emerged a winner, everyone seems to have forgotten the fact that there was a first match and he had won it. The event generated a lot of publicity and, interestingly, resulted in a big jump in stock price of IBM. IBM quickly agreed to a rematch. However, as opposed to the first match, the spirit of the rematch was not as friendly and fair. In the words of CJ Tang, the project manager of Deep Blue, ‘we are not conducting a science experiment anymore. This time we are just going to play chess’. There was too much on stake for IBM, and Garry has accused them of bending a few rules of fair play to help their cause. Garry has clearly and amply articulated his dissatisfaction over the conduct of IBM in the book. Genuine or is he a sore loser?

It has been over 20 years since Deep Blue defeated Garry. Machines have come a long way. Recently, IBM’s Project Debater took part and performed very well (did not win though) in a debate with a human debate champion. Watson’s win in Jeopardy is well known. Every day, we hear the news of smart machines performing more and more cognitively demanding tasks. Intelligent machines are not an if anymore, we ought to think about when and how of them now. Human creativity and purpose combined with the almost infinite capabilities of smart machines can turn our grandest dreams into reality.

Well, ‘machines cannot dream, even in sleep mode’. At least not yet.

Garry Kasparov talking about his book Deep Learning in Google


Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, published by John Murray in April 2018, is available for purchase here


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