Since the pandemic began, almost 13 million people joined chess.com. This tidal wave of interest was spurred mostly by the surplus of free time the world had on its hands and also partially by the chess-themed Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, named after a famous opening sequence of moves in the game. And while Chess’s popularity may have only recently been rejuvenated, it has been a ubiquitous metaphor for war and business throughout the ages.
As explained in the below video, Chess may have originally created to represent a reenactment of battle. Unsurprisingly, popular Chess principles like “Every move should have a purpose,” “Know your opponent,” and “Make strategic sacrifices” have frequently been reflected in military and corporate strategy for centuries. George Washington is documented playing chess in uniform and chess strategies are visible in the patience demonstrated by Japanese car manufacturers in the 1970s.
One of chess’s latest parallels to industry, and one that extends beyond gameplay, is centered on the emergence of Artificial Intelligence. While AI’s incredible advancements have taken the game of chess by storm, it has failed to “solve” the game and render human intervention in a chess match entirely redundant. This is a testament to the astounding complexity of the game, and also a critical lesson for businesses, militaries, and all types of enterprises to take note of. Looking forward, AI will be a powerful complement to, and not a replacement for, human thinking.
Recognizing the power of AI through playing chess
Like the aforementioned millions of others, I dusted off my chess skills at the start of the pandemic last year. My grandfather had taught me the rules and some basics when I was nine years old, but since then I had hardly played at all. So when my roommate and I instated a weekly Friday night chess match into our quarantine rituals, I quickly realized how astonishingly bad I was compared to my friend.
The first night we played, I completely embarrassed myself, losing within the first handful of moves. While I handled the loss with outward grace, I privately struggled a lot with this outcome. I wanted to be more prepared for the next Friday night, so I created an account on chess.com and proceeded to establish a mild addiction to the game. For those who are unfamiliar, chess.com has an elegant and robust interface that makes it simple to get into the weeds of the game and learn, whether you are playing against the computer or another player somewhere out there in the world.
Chess.com’s Coaching Mode allows you dissect every single move of a match, and produces a “grade” for each move you make. Then, you can go back and compare the move you made with the “optimal” move calculated by the computer’s algorithm and learn from your mistakes. Playing this way is an incredible way to learn the game, and fast too. Through this type of regular practice, I quickly became a much more formidable opponent for my roommate. By the time it was the summer, about three months after we started this routine, I was beginning to win with some level of consistency.
And now more than twelve months later, as an #ISYS8621 student, I’m realizing that this learning curve that I climbed my way through with tremendous levels of effort and concentration, is something that a deep learning algorithm can probably accomplish in a few minutes if it is fed with sufficient data.
How AI is enhancing, not replacing, human thought in chess strategy and beyond
AlphaZero is one of the most advanced chess playing artificial intelligence systems in existence. It taught itself chess starting with no knowledge beyond the rules, and developed its own chess strategies by playing millions of games against itself. In the process, it has unlocked new and fresh ways to think about the game that haven’t been previously considered.
For Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan, a couple of very advanced players who co-contributed an article to Wired, having AlphaZero at their side felt like “having a human chess genius on tap, who never got tired and never asked for coffee.” The article continued to explain:
AlphaZero’s strength and originality truly surprised us. Chess is full of superhuman expert systems, yet AlphaZero discovered an uncharted space in which its self-taught insights were both startling and valuable.
And yet, it remains impossible for any machine to fully “master” the game of chess and render human thought redundant. As the very entertaining video above explains, with 10^120 possible gameplay configurations in a chess game, there is yet to be a computer built with the depth to take all of those potential moves into consideration. The video also makes an illuminating connection to the number of atoms in the universe, which is a mere 10^75 in comparison.
With its limitations, AI is not the ultimate authority on the game, but it is a one-of-a-kind training partner that provides an enormous leg up for any player who is tapping into it. And industries driven by similar types of knowledge work would benefit from viewing AI through the same lens.
As professor of AI at The University of South Wales Toby Walsh explains, robots can help humans play to our strengths.
“Amplifying intelligence is a great way for AI to help us rather than replace us,” he explains. “So computers should bring to the table their memory and their brute force ability to search through many possibilities. And we should bring to the table our creativity, our emotional intelligence, and our ability to cope with new and unplanned situations.”