According to an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal, “Chess-playing computers, far from revealing the limits of human ability, have actually pushed it to new heights.”

Reporting on the story of Magnus Carlsen, the newly minted world chess champion, Christopher Chabris and David Goodman write that the best human chess players have been profoundly influenced by chess-playing computers:

Once laptops could routinely dispatch grandmasters … it became possible to integrate their analysis fully into other aspects of the game. Commentators at major tournaments now consult computers to check their judgment. Online, fans get excited when their own “engines” discover moves the players miss. And elite grandmasters use computers to test their opening plans and generate new ideas.

[Chess-playing programs] are not perfect; sometimes long-term strategy still eludes them. But players have learned from computers that some kinds of chess positions are playable, or even advantageous, even though they might violate general principles. Having seen how machines go about attacking and especially defending, humans have become emboldened to try the same ideas…. [A] study published on earlier this year showed that in the tournament Mr. Carlsen won to qualify for the world championship match, he played more like a computer than any of his opponents.

The net effect of the gain in computer skill is thus, ironically, a gain in human skill. Humans — at least the best ones—are getting better at playing chess.

The whole article is well worth a read (h/t Gary Rosen).

For various obvious reasons, the literature about AI and transhumanism has a lot to say about chess and computers. The Wall Street Journal article about the Carlsen victory reminds me this remark that Ray Kurzweil makes in passing in one of the epilogues to his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines:

After Kasparov’s 1997 defeat, we read a lot about how Deep Blue was just doing massive number crunching, not really “thinking” the way its human rival was doing. One could say that the opposite is the case, that Deep Blue was indeed thinking through the implications of each move and countermove, and that it was Kasparov who did not have time to really think very much during the tournament. Mostly he was just drawing upon his mental database of situations he had thought about long ago….  [page 290]

Is Kurzweil right about how Kasparov thinks? What can we know about how Carlsen’s thinking has been changed by playing against computers? There are fundamental limits to what we can know about a person’s cognitive processes — even our own — notwithstanding all the talk about how the best players think in patterns or “decision trees” or whatnot. Diego Rasskin-Gutman spends a significant portion of his 2009 book Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind trying to understand how chess players think, but this is his ultimate conclusion:

If philosophy of the mind can ask what the existential experience of being a bat feels like, can we ask ourselves how a grandmaster thinks? Clearly we can [ask], but we must admit that we will never be able to enter the mind of Garry Kasparov, share the thoughts of Judit Polgar, or know what Max Euwe thought when he discussed his protocol with Adriaan de Groot. If we really want to know how a grandmaster thinks, it is not enough to read Alexander Kotov, Nikolai Krogius, or even de Groot himself…. If we really want to know how a grandmaster thinks, there is only one sure path: put in the long hours of study that it takes to become one. It is easier than trying to become a bat. [pages 166–167]

Then again, who knows — maybe we can try to become bats and play chess.

I could do this in the dark, too, Ras