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20 Years Ago, Deep Blue Beat Garry Kasparov — And Changed The World

On May 11, 1997, something utterly unexpected happened to then-world chess champion Garry Kasparov: He conceded defeat in the last of six chess games with the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, losing the match.

It wasn’t the first time Kasparov had faced off with a machine. In 1985, he beat 32 computerized opponents at the same time. As chess programs evolved through 80s and 90s, he continued to play them. He first lost a tournament game to one of them in 1994, when Fritz 3, the third iteration of the German chess program Fritz, beat him in a game of blitz. (Blitz is high-speed chess; while standard chess games can last hours, Kasparov’s first meet-up with Fritz 3 gave 5 minutes to either side.)

Kasparov first matched up against Deep Blue in 1996. In his recently-released book “Deep Thinking,” he write that he predicted he would win that six-game competition 4-2. He did. But in his 1997 re-match with the computer, he won one game, lost two, and drew three.

“The match ended in an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion, and Mr. Kasparov expressed his frustration again and again in terms that had to do with the machine’s magic,” The New York Times reported, reflecting on Kasparov’s loss.

“I was in shock, exhausted, and bitter about everything that had happened on and off the board,” Kasparov writes in “Deep Thinking,” recalling the press conference that followed his final loss. He also brought up concerns over moves from Deep Blue that were effective against him, but made little sense in terms of machine thinking; several times throughout the games, Deep Blue had made moves that were probabilistically unsupportable, and seemed to betray a human instinct for understanding Kasparov’s own choices.

Deep Blue never played another match; Kasparov would retire from chess in 2005. (Since then he’s become a well-known pro-democracy political activist, even running for Russia’s presidency in 2007.)

What did he match mean? “I was the last world champion to win a match against a computer,” Kasparov writes in “Deep Thinking.” Outside the chess world, the impact would take a little longer to register. As Kasparov writes “what happens in the chess world is frequently a useful preview for the rest of the world;” he explores what, exactly, that means in the last third of “Deep Thinking.”

Given his much-reported frustration at Deep Blue’s win in 1997, his stance on artificial intelligence might be, for some, a surprise.

“Machines that replace physical labor have allowed us to focus more on what makes us human: our minds,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “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.”

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