13 May 2013

Slave to the ’rithm

In central London this spring, eight of the world’s greatest minds performed on a dimly lit stage in a wood-panelled theatre. An audience of hundreds watched in hushed reverence. This was the closing stretch of the 14-round Candidates’ Tournament, to decide who would take on the current chess world champion, Viswanathan Anand, later this year.

Each round took a day: one game could last seven or eight hours. Sometimes both players would be hunched over their board together, elbows on table, splayed fingers propping up heads as though to support their craniums against tremendous internal pressure. At times, one player would lean forward while his rival slumped back in an executive leather chair like a bored office worker, staring into space. Then the opponent would make his move, stop his clock, and stand up, wandering around to cast an expert glance over the positions in the other games before stalking upstage to pour himself more coffee. On a raised dais, inscrutable, sat the white-haired arbiter, the tournament’s presiding official. Behind him was a giant screen showing the four current chess positions. So proceeded the fantastically complex slow-motion violence of the games, and the silently intense emotional theatre of their players.

When Garry Kasparov lost his second match against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997, people predicted that computers would eventually destroy chess, both as a contest and as a spectator sport. Chess might be very complicated but it is still mathematically finite. Computers that are fed the right rules can, in principle, calculate ideal chess variations perfectly, whereas humans make mistakes. Today, anyone with a laptop can run commercial chess software that will reliably defeat all but a few hundred humans on the planet. Isn’t the spectacle of puny humans playing error-strewn chess games just a nostalgic throwback?

Such a dismissive attitude would be in tune with the spirit of the times. Our age elevates the precision-tooled power of the algorithm over flawed human judgment. From web search to marketing and stock-trading, and even education and policing, the power of computers that crunch data according to complex sets of if-then rules is promised to make our lives better in every way. Automated retailers will tell you which book you want to read next; dating websites will compute your perfect life-partner; self-driving cars will reduce accidents; crime will be predicted and prevented algorithmically. If only we minimise the input of messy human minds, we can all have better decisions made for us. So runs the hard sell of our current algorithm fetish.

Read the rest at Aeon magazine.