Machines don’t dream; we do

Venky Vembu | Updated on March 09, 2018

Title: Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity BeginsAuthor: Garry KasparovPublisher: Hachette IndiaPrice: ₹599

A legendary Grandmaster paints an uber-optimistic picture of man-machine collaboration

Last month, AlphaZero, an Artificial Intelligence programme devised by Google-owned company DeepMind, gave an intimation of the future of AI and machine learning by self-teaching itself to play chess and, in 24 hours, defeated Stockfish, the current highest-rated chess program, by 28 games to 0 in a 100-game match. The 72 other games were drawn.

The moment marked a milestone in the history of AI and machine learning. As FIDE Master Mile Klein noted on, AlphaZero’s achievement is comparable to “a robot being given access to thousands of metal bits and parts, but no knowledge of a combustion engine, then it experiments numerous times with every combination possible until it builds a Ferrari.” All this in just a day!

Change agent

Former world champion Garry Kasparov, who himself lost to IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997, noted that AlphaZero’s achievement has history-shaping potential. “The ability of a machine to replicate and surpass centuries of human knowledge... is a world-changing tool.”

There is something about machines outclassing humans in a “thought-based exercise” (such as chess, for instance) that triggers alarmist fears of a Frankenstein or of an era when machines will take over — and excel in — human cognitive functions and render us redundant.

But the fear of a “ghost in the machine” predates this time, and started with even technology and automation that relieved humans of the tedium of repetitive, mindless jobs. Kasparov, the author of Deep Thinking, Is, however, something of a pragmatic optimist. He notes: “…a pattern… has repeated over and over for centuries. People scoffed at every feeble attempt to substitute clumsy, fragile machines for the power of horses and oxen. We laughed at the idea that stiff wood and metal could replicate the soaring grace of the birds.” Eventually, he points out, “we have had to concede that there is no physical labour that couldn’t be replicated, or mechanically surpassed.”

There are countless anecdotal narratives to establish how humans give up their “fear” of automation and readily embrace it — given the right circumstances. For instance, the technology for automatic push-button elevators had existed since 1900, but people were too uncomfortable to ride in one without an operator.

But in September 1945, when elevator operators’ unions went on a strike, they left thousands of people struggling up stairways “that seemed endless, including the Empire State Building,” then the world’s tallest structure. The industry seized the moment with a PR push to change people’s minds. And when elevator operators lost their jobs to “automation”, no one mourned their loss.

The human factor

A similar debate is currently under way about the disruptive potential of driverless cars and other automation initiatives in the workplace. And as Kasparov notes, this time, the educated classes in the developed world, who have long had the “luxury of lecturing their blue-collar brethren about the glories of the automated future”, now find themselves squarely in the line of fire.

In his estimation, this is no big loss. Machines that replace physical labour, he argues, have allowed us to focus more on what makes humans: 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.”

That sure sounds like an exceedingly rosy view of the future, but it’s only Kasparov’s opening gambit. From there, he leads us on to a middle-game analysis, in which — using chess at the centre of his argument for greater collaboration between Man and Machine, to embellish his case.

Machines, he reckons, “don’t need to do things the same way the natural world does in order to be useful, or to surpass nature.” Indicatively, airplanes don’t flap their wings and in fact helicopters don’t need wings at all. Likewise, the wheel does not exist in nature, but it has served humans well down the ages. “So why should computer brains work like human brains in order to achieve results?” he asks.

What lies ahead

And although his epic 1997 loss to Deep Blue was characterised a defining moment in the history of Man vs Machine, Kasparov closes the door on that exploration by pointing the way to the era of collaboration that it also opened between humans and machines — to the age of “human plus machine”, where humans store information in their “outboard brain” and draw on it when needed.

The handphone has done away with the need to remember phone numbers; the calculator has dispensed with the need to be know your multiplication tables. But does anyone regret not having to memorise phone numbers or maps? All these advancements don’t reflect a loss of free will, but a gain of time “that we don’t yet know what to do with.”

In the final analysis, says Kasparov, “we cannot be sure what changes our new technology will bring, but I trust the young people who are growing up with it. I trust that they will find surprising new ways to use technology the way my generation used computers and satellites and how every generation has used technology to fulfill human ambition.”

In his estimation, technology can in fact make us more human by freeing us to be more creative, but there is, he adds, more to being human than creativity. “Machines cannot dream, not even in sleep mode.” Humans can, and we we will need intelligent machines in order to turn our grandest dreams into reality. “If we stop dreaming big dreams, if we stop looking for a greater purpose, then we may as well be machines ourselves.”

Published on December 24, 2017

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