23 August 2019

A Chess Epiphany

Last week's post, The Value of Deep Learning, featured a Wired.com article by Gary Marcus, titled 'DeepMind's Losses and the Future of Artificial Intelligence'. This week I discovered another article appearing this month in the same source, Inside DeepMind's epic mission to solve science's trickiest problem (wired.co.uk), written by Greg Williams. The subtitle explains,

DeepMind's AI has beaten chess grandmasters and Go champions. But founder and CEO Demis Hassabis now has his sights set on bigger, real-world problems that could change lives. First up: protein folding.

The article is much more about protein folding than it is about chess, but it has a long chess anecdote that I had seen elsewhere. I located the first version in Sadler & Regan's book 'Game Changer', in its 'Introduction by Demis Hassabis'. It starts, 'Far from being just a game, chess has always been a part of me.' The 'Game Changer' version of the anecdote goes like this:-

One particular moment would end up having a big impact on the direction I would take for the rest of my life. I was 11 years old and in the middle of a gruelling eight hour match with a veteran Danish master at a big international tournament in Liechtenstein. We had reached a highly unusual endgame, which I had never seen before -- I only had my queen, and my far more experienced opponent had a rook, bishop and knight. He was ahead in material but if I could just keep his king in check with my queen, I could force a draw. Hours rolled by as he pushed his pieces around trying to outmaneuver me, and the vast playing hall slowly emptied as everyone else finished their games. Then suddenly, after dozens of moves of not making any progress, he finally somehow managed to trap my king, with checkmate seemingly forced on his next move. Exhausted and shocked, I resigned.

Immediately he stood up, perplexed. He laughed as he dramatically gestured that I could have secured a draw if only I had sacrificed my queen, to achieve a stalemate. At the last moment he had just tried a final cheap trick, and it had worked! I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. The next day I reflected over what had happened, and as I looked out over the packed hall filled with brilliant minds, I vividly remember wondering, what if all this incredible collective mental effort being expended could instead somehow be channelled into something beyond games, perhaps an important area of science or medicine, what might it be possible to achieve?

That epiphany marked the beginning of the end of my professional chess career, but also sowed the initial seeds for what would eventually become DeepMind, the artificial intelligence (AI) research company I co-founded in 2010.

The Wired.co.uk version ends with a slightly different conclusion:-

Hassabis recalls that, at that moment, he had an epiphany: he questioned the purpose of the brilliant minds in the room competing with each other to win a zero-sum game. He would go on to play the game at the highest level, captaining his university team, and still talks of his continued love of complex games, but the experience led to him channeling his energy into something beyond games. “The reason that I could not become a professional chess player, he says. “Is that it didn't feel productive enough somehow.”

The first version ('incredible collective mental effort'), presumably written by Hassabis himself, is kinder to chess players than the second version ('brilliant minds competing to win a zero-sum game') by a professional writer. The sentiment that professional chess is somehow a waste of talent is often expressed by people who don't play or like the game.

Would Demis Hassabis have been more useful to society as a professional chess player? Certainly not. Would Bobby Fischer have been more useful as something other than a chess professional? Probably not. Garry Kasparov? He is the rare player who has also excelled in a field other than chess after retiring. Magnus Carlsen? It's too early to say.

The discussion invariably comes around to the chess-in-school programs. Is their purpose to expand the ranks of professional players? To expand the pool of keen chess fans? To accelerate the development of young, bright minds? Maybe all of the above -or- maybe something else. I have the questions, not the answers.

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