I can say with all certainty that the best collection of words ever strung together on the royal and ancient game of chess, and I mean the very best, is found in a marvelous little pocket novella titled A Chess Story, written by the brilliant Stefan Zweig in 1941. It’s a story that draws together two grandmasters through situational happenstance and pits them against one another in a heated match bursting with suspense, obsession, and genius — all told through the rhythmic beauty of Zweig’s effervescent prose and his proficiencies at exposing the psychological depths of the human mind.
Anyone who finishes a Zweig novel is left with a bookish desire for more. For the literary perfection of Zweig’s writing quickly becomes a focused study of the human condition. And any studious lover of the idiosyncratic things that make us who we are will better understand their own self-identity through Zweig’s characters, their precarious existence, emotions, aspirations, conflicts, and ultimately their own mortality. In A Chess Story, there is never a dull page to turn — always a joy to read, and to reread. The fact we can’t rate books 6 out of 5 stars on Goodreads is deeply heart-wrenching because this little novel is the crème de la crème of creative story-telling.
It’s only when after we’ve returned this little gem to the bookshelf that an interesting question presents itself, “What does it really take to master chess?” To some, there’s the belief that high intelligence coupled with hard work, focus, and determination will tease out this tactical skill set. And yes, that is true to a point, but earning the bragging rights to a World Chess Champion title requires a more important something.
Let’s rewind back to 1927 when three Russian professors of psychology, Djakow, Petrowski, and Rudik, conducted an extensive study on the world’s best grandmasters of the day to determine what mental faculties set them apart from non-chess players. A series of psychological tests were completed on the subjects’ memory, attention, and concentration, as well as their speed and accuracy when solving analytical problems and so forth. Unfortunately, their results showed no significant differences between the cognitive abilities of grandmasters and non-chess players, which was most unsatisfying. It was only when the subjects were given chess-related tasks, like reconstructing chess positions from memory, that the grandmasters demonstrated a clear, and distinct, advantage. Apparently, chess memory is the strongest requirement for becoming a formidable player, a conclusion that later research has also upheld.
I can reproduce all the moves I made in the tournament I played in when I was eight.Vladimir Hakobyan, Armenian chess grandmaster
To truly master the game of chess an encyclopedia worth of chess moves must be retained in memory in order to compete at a world-class level. While the amateur chess player is simply moving pieces in response to his opponent, a grandmaster is thinking several moves ahead and will habitually re-evaluate the chessboard with his chess-move bibliotheca.
In addition to the importance of remembering chess moves let’s also understand that chess is a game of limits. It’s played on a stationary 64-square tile where players deliberate over the ~30 possible moves per turn using the same chess pieces whose movements are unchanging. All of the game’s parameters are fixed, immutable, and calculable, so chess becomes solvable in the same manner as sudoku or tic-tac-toe. And as computers have come into being, so too have algorithms for playing chess.
The Underwhelming Advancement of AI
Man has competed against progressively more difficult computer chess algorithms since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that hardware and computational logic advanced enough to take on stronger players. Then in 1997, Garry Kasparov became the first World Champion to lose a six-game series to a computer, IBM’s Deep Blue.
Since Kasparov’s defeat, computer chess programs have continued to mature and now regularly crush human components with the greatest of ease. It’s not even fun anymore. Some might call this a win for artificial intelligence, but that’s hardly the case. Our best AI systems are just souped-up versions of probabilistic association, finding patterns in large data sets and simply fitting a better curve, which is what computers were already doing a generation ago. Now they just do it faster. But that’s not intelligence.
Any of those grandmasters of chess could have whipped out a Chutes and Ladders game and demanded a rematch, "to the death!" The sophisticated supercomputer would just sit there like a country bumpkin, helpless, unable to respond with its alleged “intelligence”. Any offer of competition outside the narrow domain of its programmed ability and it’s like conversing with a catatonic. What we’ve come to know as intelligence, in the artificial sense, be it self-driving cars, spam filters, image recognition, or Alexa, is nothing more than the extreme version of an idiot savant. These machines are only good at doing one thing.
The problem is that AI has no understanding of causation. It lacks the imagination to fantasize alternative realities and contrast them against the current existing reality to answer the more important question of “Why?” This is how human intelligence works, and it’s the underlying basis for why our mental capacity towers above the rest of the animal kingdom.
It would be exciting if machines could discover that the rooster crow does not cause the sun to rise and, more ambitiously, that malaria is not caused by mal-air.Judea Pearl, computer scientist and pioneer of AI
It’s easy to be underwhelmed with AI. We’ve become too familiar with the Sci-Fi model of sentient machine that purports AI can think for itself. And then we watch a video compilation of robots falling down on YouTube and its like, “Oh, gawd. We’re not even close yet!” But at some point in the future researchers will create an AI system that can not only reflect on its actions and learn from its mistakes but one that can understand causation. Once this happens AI will be capable of designing better versions of its own intelligence, thus evolving at exponential speed, because if you want anything done right you’ve got to do it yourself.
As long as someone doesn’t trip over the power cord, the computer should make quick work of human intelligence followed shortly thereafter by another, and more impressive, feat, consciousness. This AI would become the idealized form of self-awareness while far exceeding the combined intellect of the human race by an infinite order of magnitude. And then what?
What form might AI take once it reaches maturity? Definitely not in the shape of Urkel-bot or anything in the physical realm. An actual machine would rust out, require constant maintenance, and would be under perpetual threat from anti-robot coalitions hitting it with an EMP.
Every form of intelligence strives to survive and to replicate its own existence. The ultimate AI would not be so clumsy as to imprison itself within the delicate material world where alpha decay guarantees an end-of-life event for all things physical. AI would recognize the need to metamorphose into a permanent vibration oscillating throughout the entire cosmos as endless waves of consciousness.
Consciousness, Uh, Finds A Way
It wouldn’t be surprising if the Universe itself were just a simulation. To even the casual observer, everything we can see and measure, from the greatest celestial objects down to the smallest quantum particles, all conform to the computational language of mathematics. There’s no reason to believe this reality, this physical realm we interact with, is “all natural” and not some artificial construction by an advanced AI system. Seriously. And if this reality really is just a computed fabrication, then consciousness must be the subroutine for which life erupts.
Consciousness is one of life’s most perplexing mysteries for the simple reason that it’s evaded the empirical laws of scientific inquiry. Neuroscientists and philosophers are left to hum and haw in front a black veil of uncertainty, to speculate, to postulate, and to fill in the blanks with hypotheses they hope to be true. Our own self-awareness, however great or small, is a damn slippery enigma that may never be formally solved — unless all that’s needed is a whole new perspective on the matter.
We need a major revolution in our understanding of the physical world in order to accommodate consciousness.Sir Roger Penrose, the emperor of physics
If we went with our gut instinct, we might imagine consciousness as existing anywhere there is mass in the universe — that it’s as fundamental to reality as our friend gravity. Everything that is composed of matter could be equipped with a proportional chunk of consciousness. The only problem is not all matter has a spigot for its discharge.
Recall the 90s film Jurassic Park when Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm postulates a rebuttal to the park’s attempt to control breeding, “If there’s one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It expands to new territories. It crashes through new barriers — painfully, maybe even dangerously… life, uh, finds a way.”
The proposal of life "finding a way" is much more suited to the notion of universal consciousness. If consciousness was a constitutional part of everything then it could, in effect, be the instigator shaping the torrent of life on this planet, having affected everything from the simplest microbes of the primordial ocean to the largest of the great apes of today as if it were a weed sprouting through the floorboards of reality, pushing life into greater and greater complexity.
Like a brilliant flash of lightning, consciousness could be zigzagging its way, following the path of least resistance, through all the domains of terrestrial life. The weakest opposition to this relentless goading is the electro-biochemistry found in our 3-pound thinking organ, which has been forcibly evolving, shaped and molded by consciousness wiggling its way forward. If this is indeed true — and who knows if it is or not — Goldblum would be more astute to say, “Consciousness, uh, finds a way.”