The future of human endeavor: humans and computers together far exceed the capabilities of either apart


In my keynotes I often reference 1997 as the year that a chess grandmaster was first beaten by a computer, with Deep Blue outplaying Garry Kasparov.

Before that happened many believed that chess was the domain of ingenuity, imagination, and human insight that computers could never match. Yet brute processing power plus some improved algorithms did the job.

The power of computers has soared by around 1000-fold since then, and computers are moving deeper and deeper into the domain of what we consider to be fundamental human capabilities.

However, as I wrote in Chapter 11 of Living Networks:

The real issue is not whether humans will be replaced by machines, because at the same time as computing technology is progressing, people are merging with machines. If machines take over the world, we will be those machines.

There is an excellent article in Wall Street Journal today that explores how in chess the pinnacle of the game is now played by humans augmented by computers.

It describes how computers are being routinely used to analyze or assist with chess strategy.

When engines suggest surprising moves, or arrangements of pieces that look “ugly” to human sensibilities, they are often seeing more deeply into the game than their users. They are not perfect; sometimes long-term strategy still eludes them. But players have learned from computers that some kinds of chess positions are playable, or even advantageous, even though they might violate general principles. Having seen how machines go about attacking and especially defending, humans have become emboldened to try the same ideas.

Computers have gone so far that the top human players are now those who most often play the moves that would be chosen by the best engines (which sport names like Houdini, HIARCS and Rybka). Magnus Carlsen’s biographers dub him the “hero of the computer era.” Indeed, a study published on earlier this year showed that in the tournament Mr. Carlsen won to qualify for the world championship match, he played more like a computer than any of his opponents.

The net effect of the gain in computer skill is thus, ironically, a gain in human skill. Humans—at least the best ones—are getting better at playing chess.

The article concludes:

After Mr. Kasparov lost to Deep Blue, the Boston Herald’s front page screamed “You Lose, Man!” But the game of chess didn’t lose a thing. As in other fields, human chess skill has been complemented and augmented, not replaced, by machines. The result has been new levels of understanding and popularity for one of the oldest human pastimes. The championship reign of Magnus Carlsen will bring to fruition this new era in chess.

It is not just in chess that computers are augmenting humans. In every domain, in every field of endeavor, humans are getting better, not least because computers are helping them.

We are more because of machines.