Human dreams, #Linchpin, Gary Kasparov and “The Mechanical Turk”


In Linchpin, Seth Godin writes about “The Mechanical Turk”, a fake chess-playing machine constructed in the late 18th century. From Wikipedia:

The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that allowed a human chess master hiding inside to operate the machine. With a skilled operator, the Turk won most of the games played during its demonstrations around Europe and the Americas for nearly 84 years … Although many had suspected the hidden human operator, the hoax was initially revealed only in the 1820s by the Londoner Robert Willis

Godin uses this phenomenon to make a point about how simple tasks are becoming automated. And if we can automate them, one of two things will happen. Either we would not need people to do the task or we will pay them very little to do it (and it is already happening).

“The Mechanical Turk” was indeed a hoax, but he was just the precursor for what happened at the end of the 20th century when computers actually began to win against humans in chess games. This process is fantastically described, sometimes from a first person point of view, in Garry Kasparov’s review of the book Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind by Diego Rasskin-Gutman titled The Chess Master and the Computer. Reading the review reminded me of the messages Godin is trying to make so vividly, that I had to put the connection in writing:

The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming. 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.

This is exactly the point that we need to remember. Computers, analysis, automation. They are all tools. Tools that should allow us humans to create something better. In the last 100 years, we used them to create more. Because in the state the world was, more meant better. And in order to use those tools best, we needed to lock ourselves behind rules and other mechanisms of control. But no more. Now, we need to leave the idea of more and make sure we allow people to create something greater. Not only more, but something new and meaningful and valuable. In the end of the review, Kasparov writes:

This is our last chess metaphor, then—a metaphor for how we have discarded innovation and creativity in exchange for a steady supply of marketable products. The dreams of creating an artificial intelligence that would engage in an ancient game symbolic of human thought have been abandoned. Instead, every year we have new chess programs, and new versions of old ones, that are all based on the same basic programming concepts for picking a move by searching through millions of possibilities that were developed in the 1960s and 1970s.

From Great to Good. From just more with incremental improvements, we need to move to different that makes a true impact on our lives. And the way to reach those dreams will not be found in productivity and automation. It will be found where dreams are often found. In the human mind. In humans’ creativity and freedom and aspirations. In letting go of the rules and of the control and trying to use the tools that we have to re-invent the game. The game of chess and the game of our world.


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