In 1997, you did not have to be a chess player to feel a sense of loss when Watson, a supercomputer from IBM, humbled chess master Garry Kasparov. The raw power of the superconductor laid vulnerable the ability of one of the world’s best players. Unless you were a computer maven or held stock in “Big Blue,” it was not a moment to cherish.
But there was more to the story that got relatively little notice. Kasparov said later that he understood the capability of the supercomputer, but he realized that it was also limited. “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.”
Kasparov went on to create a field known as “advanced chess,” a game format in which players are assisted by off-the-shelf computer chess programs that offer possible moves a player can make given the board layout. Fast forward to 2005, and Kasparov staged an online tournament with a field of grandmasters, supercomputers and computer-assisted humans. The winner? A pair of amateur players, each younger than 30, who used a personal computer running an inexpensive chess program. Per reports assessing the match, the duo were able to win by effectively leveraging the computer’s assistance. They had to decide when to “consult” the computer program and agree as to whether or not to follow its advice.
Kasparov said the win proved that a “weak” human with a machine can outperform a strong human with a machine if the weak human has a better cognitive process. “Therefore, the most brilliant chess players, worldwide, are neither high-end machines nor high-end humans but surprisingly, those aver-age-playing-ability chess players who are effective with the blending of their experience with the exhaustive thoroughness as made possible by computational decision support.”
The ability to correctly evaluate a small handful of moves rather than crunch millions of possibilities is far more important, both in human chess and human decision-making in general, Kasparov said.
On multiple levels, I find that conclusion reassuring.