Sunday, February 7, 2010

Kasparov's Futile Plea

I wanted to offer a footnote to my analysis yesterday of Gary Kasparov's piece on computers and chess. I concluded with the observation that Kasparov was highly sympathetic to artificial intelligence research, the point of his essay being that his having been beaten by Deep Blue did not really constitute an advance in artificial intelligence. My own point was that the real punch line of his essay was its argument for a major paradigm shift in the conduct of artificial intelligence research; but I concluded that it was "highly unlikely" that either Kasparov's conclusion or the reasoning leading to that conclusion would be taken seriously.

In my zeal to state my own position, I neglected to mention that Kasparov shares my pessimism and throws in a bit of diagnosis for good measure. He sees the success of Deep Blue and the equally successful programs that have followed in its wake as "a metaphor for how we have discarded innovation and creativity in exchange for a steady supply of marketable products." He elaborates on this observation in his following paragraph:

Like so much else in our technology-rich and innovation-poor modern world, chess computing has fallen prey to incrementalism and the demands of the market. Brute-force programs play the best chess, so why bother with anything else? Why waste time and money experimenting with new and innovative ideas when we already know what works? Such thinking should horrify anyone worthy of the name of scientist, but it seems, tragically, to be the norm. Our best minds have gone into financial engineering instead of real engineering, with catastrophic results for both sectors.

In this frame of reference, I feel I can offer some diagnostic analysis of my own; and that analysis was triggered by the final sentence of Kasparov's paragraph. If he wishes to understand why those "best minds" prefer "financial engineering" to either "real engineering" or theoretical science, he might consider the perspective of the economic historian Niall Ferguson, whose The Ascent of Money basically argues that it was ever thus throughout the history of the world. When Robert Skidelsky reviewed this book for The New York Review, he collapsed Ferguson's argument into a single proposition:

Throughout history men have been more ingenious at finding ways to make money than to make things.

In other words the history of the world is not charted by either advances in knowledge or how that knowledge led to new things to make. The narrative of our world's history is a narrative of "finding ways to make money." It is not, as Kasparov laments, that we are "innovation-poor;" it is only that Kasparov is unhappy with how our innovative capacities are being applied. Ferguson's point, however, is that, however lamentable Kasparov may find this condition, it is very much a human condition; and we live in the world we do because of that condition.

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