I Was There When: AI mastered chess


Commentator 2: Deep Blue! Kasparov, after the move C4, has resigned!


Jennifer: I’m Jennifer Strong, and this is I Was There When—an oral history project featuring the stories of breakthroughs and watershed moments in AI and computing, as told by those who witnessed them. This episode, we meet the man on the other side of that chess board, Garry Kasparov. 

Garry Kasparov: It was inevitable that something described on the cover of Newsweek as the brain’s last stand and in books as big as the moon landing would involve a lot of mythology. I admit that I was caught up in a lot of this hype myself. It took years of reflection and examination to sort out my impressions then and the truth. I wrote about this painful process in my 2017 book, Deep Thinking: When machine intelligence ends and human creativity begins, it’s easy for a chess machine, after all. They don’t care if they win or lose. They don’t even know they’re playing chess. But as a human and world champion, I had many emotions sitting down across from a machine. 

Garry Kasparov: Would it play like previous machines or would it play like God? I was used to reading my opponents body language. Not exactly helpful, sitting across from a computer engineer making moves he didn’t understand for the machine he’d built. I was also used to preparing deeply for my opponents based on their previous games and their tendencies. Against Deep Blue, this was also out the window as they kept their training games secret. And of course they could upgrade its strengths and change its chess personality with a few keystrokes. If only I could. It was hard to explain my experience because I was really the first knowledge worker to have my job threatened by a machine.

Garry Kasparov: Most AI and experiences before that were hoaxes, or quite primitive. For example, human elevate operators being replaced by automatic push-bat elevators was very alarming to people in the 1940s. In fact, the technology for automatic elevators had existed for decades, but people were afraid of them. Plus, the elevate operators had a strong union. Today, there are many easy comparisons. Sitting down across from Deep Blue was in one way entirely normal. I had been feeding at a chess board since I was six years old, and technically a little was different for me, and yet it was entirely different. I felt like most people will feel the first time they get into a self-driving car or get a diagnosis from an AI doctor.

Garry Kasparov: These new marvels are far beyond my chest nemesis. Of course, the machine I lost to in the 1997 rematch, sometimes called Deep Blue, was as intelligent as your alarm clock—a 10 million dollar alarm clock, but nothing like what had been imagined by previous generations. This is not to downplay their achievement, which was a Mount Everest of computing—to defeat the world chess champion . There was a reason it got global attention. I only want to put into context what we mean when we say intelligent. Deep Blue did one thing very well with hundreds of specialized chiefs, but it was enough to compete at the world champion level because chess is deep but not deep enough. Deep Blue didn’t have to solve chess. It only had to play better over six games and brute force analysis at fast speeds turned out to be enough. It took me a while to absorb the most important lessons of my loss, and they had nothing to do with chess and everything to do with the future of the human-machine relationship.

Garry Kasparov: The period in which we compete against intelligent machines is very small, almost insignificant, yet we put so much importance on it instead of the alternative machine supremacy that follows, which is what really matters. AI automation replaces human jobs, for example, and there’s a brief moment of equality in performance with humans. But that doesn’t last long, and forever after machines will do it better, cheaper, and more safely. That’s human progress. It makes our lives better. This isn’t to be callous to those who lose their jobs, but even there, study after study shows that industries with more automation and AI do better with more jobs and higher salaries. The alternative is stagnation. 


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