The geek shall inherit the earth

This much-blogged article by Garry Kasparov in The New York Review of Books is worthy of the attention. What's fantastic is Kasparov's deeper exploration of the impact of the rise 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.


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.


The availability of millions of games at one's fingertips in a database is also making the game's best players younger and younger. Absorbing the thousands of essential patterns and opening moves used to take many years, a process indicative of Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours to become an expert" theory as expounded in his recent book Outliers. Today's teens, and increasingly pre-teens, can accelerate this process by plugging into a digitized archive of chess information and making full use of the superiority of the young mind to retain it all.

What's perhaps even more intriguing, though, is Kasparov's recount of the results of a chess tournament hosted by a chess website in which players were all allowed to play against each other with the aid of computers.

The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and "coaching" their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

Can this result (weak human + machine + better process as superior option) be replicated in other areas of human-computer partnership? While Kasparov is talking about chess in this article, the fact that so many people now carry phones that are more powerful than the earliest personal computers has elevated the importance of human-computer collaboration. We are not yet the cyborgs of sci-fi imagination, but in some aspects of life, we're closer than we may realize.

The gap between those who can work in partnership with computers and those who cannot (for whatever reason, socioeconomic or generational or other) is evident in so many ways. Even among those who are computing-enabled, there are differences in ability. When I'm out with a group of people and we're looking for a restaurant, or directions, the people with smartphones with Yelp and Google Maps are more capable than those without. We can go further and observe that even among those with smartphones, some are better at using them to their full potential than others. Is that a result of superior process, or a stronger human?