Humans Should Not Fear the Rise of the Machines

A review of Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, by Garry Kasparov. Public Affairs, 2018.

Netflix series Black Mirror’s latest story arc “Bandersnatch” is an interactive psychological thriller, which has been hailed as groundbreaking because of its innovative delivery of content. Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology series, which “explores a twisted, high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.” Prominent episodes include “Nosedive,” in which social media is used to rate all citizens to determine their socioeconomic status (China’s Orwellian new “social credit system” has drawn comparisons with this episode and ominous warnings), and “Arkangel,” in which a mother uses an implant chip technology to monitor her daughter from infancy to adolescence and censor any sources of distress (helicopter parenting taken to the extreme)—with predictably disastrous results for her daughter’s social development.

Black Mirror’s depiction of people’s deepest fears of technology run amok is consistent with that of popular works from The Matrix to The Terminator, in which humans have been replaced, enslaved or hunted to near extinction by their own creations. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are often accompanied by warnings of a Terminator scenario—an event feared even by such brilliant minds as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. Other commentators have suggested that we will need to institute universal basic income, since AI and automation will fundamentally transform the future of work, impacting jobs, skills and wages.

Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov offers a refreshing counterbalance to this cultural landscape of fear and pessimism in his new book, Deep Thinking. Drawing upon his chess background and on fields ranging from philosophy to cognitive science, Kasparov provides an original perspective on humanity, critical thinking and innovation, in a world on the cusp of the next industrial revolution, driven by breakthroughs in many fields, including the Internet of Things (IoT), nanotechnology and, of course, AI.

Chess enthusiasts will enjoy Kasparov’s overview of the history of the game, as well as his discussion of how advances in computers have been intimately intertwined with chess for decades—a phenomenon that he personally witnessed from the front lines. Those who know how to play famous openings such as the Ruy Lopez (Spanish Torture) and understand the game’s other intricacies will appreciate Kasparov’s detailed postmortem of his battle with IBM’s Deep Blue. Most profoundly, Kasparov shares important lessons on how the game of chess and chess players themselves have adapted to the rise of smart machines over time — just as he had to, following his historic loss to the AI. He extends those lessons to our modern world, in which smartphones, apps and AI are already omnipresent.

On May 11, 1997, Kasparov became the first world chess champion to lose a match to a supercomputer under tournament conditions. His epic battle with Deep Blue attracted intense media scrutiny. When he lost Game 6 of his match against the machine, the world was shocked. Afterwards, Kasparov was deeply bitter about the loss and even went so far as to accuse Deep Blue’s well-prepared team of human programmers, engineers and chess consultants of cheating and rigging the match.

More than two decades later, though he still wonders what transpired behind the scenes, Kasparov’s thinking has evolved and he no longer rages against the machine. Having learned from and built upon his experiences since that historic 1997 match, he offers an uplifting message of rational optimism and hope about a future in which people won’t be raging or racing against the machines but running alongside them—and benefiting in the process.

Kasparov is amazed by the rapid rise of younger chess players, such as prodigy Magnus Carlsen, who grew up in our Internet-connected world of computers and smartphones. With grandmaster-level commercial chess engines available at their fingertips, rising stars are finding it easier and easier to access game databases, hone their skills and receive knowledge and training that were once restricted to the secret domain of elite Soviet chess teachers. As a result, top talent is identified and cultivated earlier in more players in diverse parts of the world from Norway to India.

Kasparov celebrates the liberating effects of technology especially for youth:

Kids are capable of learning far more, far faster, than traditional educational methods allow for. They are already doing it mostly on their own, living in a far more complex environment than the one their parents grew up in…. [T]his is their world, and we need to prepare them for it, not futilely attempt to shield them from it. Kids thrive on connections and creation and they can be empowered by today’s technology to connect and create in limitless ways. The kids who go to schools that embrace this empowerment most ably will thrive … The kids can handle it. They are already doing it on their own. It’s the adults who are afraid.

But they should not be. Kasparov points out that “technology has lowered the barrier of entry in dozens of business sectors, which should prompt more experimentation and investment.”

For centuries, man has sought creative ways to save himself from backbreaking labor and menial duties. We domesticated animals, invented new tools and developed new machines. But, for most of human history, almost everyone lived in squalor and poverty. It was not until the Industrial Revolution that new technologies unleashed by innovation and entrepreneurship reversed that virtually flatline trend and produced a Great Enrichment, which upended traditional institutions, culture and society. Despite the resistance of some workers, who saw the encroachment of new machines and technologies as a threat to their livelihoods, the march of progress was unstoppable and ultimately improved people’s lives for the better. Thanks to labor-saving devices, such as the tractor and washing machine, women, children and other disadvantaged groups freed themselves from hard labor and found the time to educate themselves and discover new opportunities. As technological innovations penetrated deeper into society and reached more people, people gradually adapted and assimilated those new tools into their lives, jobs and economy. In the process, these successful adaptations generated wealth, raised living standards for everyone and paved the path for newer opportunities.

The Luddite suspicions and backlash which accompanied these developments parallel today’s fears of robots, automation and AI. Kasparov notes that, while AI and automation continues to take over many routine tasks, the costs of retraining have gone down and new jobs have emerged. Some of these new jobs, such as drone pilot or robotic surgeon, still require the operator to work in tandem with the machine. Judging by current trends, fruitful human-machine collaborations will continue for years to come.

Of course, some jobs will be lost forever, due to AI and automation, but past experiences show that people can successfully adapt to technological change. The history of the elevator provides one vivid example. As elevators literally brought people to new heights and opened up new horizons, their revolutionary significance for transportation and architecture cannot be overstated. Still, many people had fears about getting onto elevators. Early elevators needed human operators and, at one point, the elevator operators’ union was one of the biggest in New York City. But when a major strike by the union paralyzed the city in 1945, businesses and citizens were inspired to look for automated solutions to prevent that from happening again. Elevator technology improved to the point at which manual operators were no longer needed. Today, it is almost unfathomable that elevators once needed manual operators, given their efficiency and impeccable safety record.

Perhaps something similar might happen in the near future, with driverless cars. No doubt many of today’s skillsets, professions and business models will be challenged by the rise of the machines. But Kasparov reminds us that it is ultimately our attitudes that determine whether we can fully realize the opportunities that come with the inevitable technological progress:

We can either see these changes as a robotic hand closing around our necks or one that can lift us up higher than we can reach on our own, as has always been the case. Romanticizing the loss of jobs to technology is little better than complaining that antibiotics put too many grave diggers out of work.

In every market-driven society that experiences constant change, “the cycle of automation, fear and eventual acceptance goes on.” Throughout his book, Kasparov emphasizes building human and institutional resilience. He also encourages an open mindset towards experimentation and learning through trial and error:

The willingness to keep trying new things—different methods, uncomfortable tasks—when you are already an expert at something is what separates good from great. Focusing on your strengths is required for peak performance, but improving your weaknesses has the potential for the greatest gains. This is true for athletes, executives and entire companies. Leaving your comfort zone involves risk, however, and when you are already doing well the temptation to stick with the status quo can be overwhelming, leading to stagnation.

Adaptation—not defeatism—is how we will triumph. Our history as a species and human nature itself show that we have and can overcome the greatest challenges. Ultimately, we will uplift humanity, as people figure out to do more with less—and do so more creatively:

Machines that replace physical labor have allowed us to focus more on what makes us human: our minds. Intelligent machines will continue that process, taking over the more menial aspects of cognition and elevating our mental lives toward creativity, curiosity, beauty and joy. These are what truly make us human, not any particular activity or skill like swinging a hammer—or even playing chess.

There’s still plenty of work for us humans to do: from composing great music to figuring out how to land on Mars, which of course can be aided by technology. Even as we debate (and we definitely should) the privacy implications and other ethical issues that each new piece of technology presents, Kasparov urges us to not to hinder progress or fear machines: “we must speed them up. We must give them, and ourselves, plenty of room to grow. We must go forward, outward and upward.”

These are bold words. Deep Thinking is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and to our collective ability, as a species, to adapt in the face of technological disruption, no matter how turbulent. As people living at the best time in human history, we would be wise to listen to Kasparov’s intelligent advice and embrace innovation and use our potential to make the world even better.

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    1. machines will spare you the drudgery of being a skilled craftsman who takes pleasure in working with his hands, and develops real confidence in your abilities that you earned from years of practice. here’s a TV, here’s a computer. now you can watch cable news all day, and yell at people online because you have nothing more enriching to do with your life anymore.

  1. the risk is largely a moral one. I think if we create a true sentient AI, then we will have created a slave. and that’s what it would be used for. we’re not going to just create artificial life so it can live free. have you met humans? that would just not happen. even if we created it strictly for research, then we’re creating it as a research subject that can’t opt out.

    there are also problems of worker displacement, and lack of mental exercise causing our minds to narrow as a result (I think we’re already seeing some of that), but my big beef with it is that it would inevitably be slavery.

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