A Conversation with Garry Kasparov

It is that small number of truly powerful minds in our society who can reflect our past, present and future with a degree of lucidity and truth that makes us stand up and listen.  These polymaths bring expertise from many fields of life together, creating the serendipitous and insightful provocations that enable us to see who we are.

Garry Kasparov is one of those minds.  Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the Soviet Union in 1963, he came to international fame at the age of 22 as the youngest world chess champion in history in 1985. Garry defended his title five times and his famous matches against the IBM super-computer Deep Blue in 1996-97 were key to bringing artificial intelligence, and chess, into the mainstream.

Kasparov’s was one of the first prominent Soviets to call for democratic and market reforms and was an early supporter of Boris Yeltsin’s push to break up the Soviet Union. In 1990, he and his family escaped ethnic violence in his native Baku as the USSR collapsed. In 2005, Kasparov, in his 20th year as the world’s top-rated player, retired from professional chess to join the vanguard of the Russian pro-democracy movement. In 2012, Kasparov was named chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, succeeding Vaclav Havel.  Facing imminent arrest during Putin’s crackdown, Kasparov moved from Moscow to New York City in 2013.

In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Garry about democracy, dictators, the instability in our world, his hopes for the future and how artificial intelligence will allow us to embrace our humanity.

Q: Why does democracy matter?

[Garry Kasparov] If we look at human history, we can see a simple answer to the question of democracy.  This system [democracy] provides the best conditions for individuals and society to flourish.

Most of the world’s wealth has been produced by democratic countries, and whilst people may point to China and other countries where living standards are growing… the driving engine of innovation, which is the foundation of human progress, still sits in the heart of the free world.

Free people are far more capable of realising their potential.

Q: Who do we have such instability in our world?

[Garry Kasparov] History is not linear, like the chapters of a book… History moves through seasons, and so winters are inevitable.

After the end of the Cold War, when a big chapter of human history was closed with liberal democracies winning convincingly against communism, no game-plan was offered in exchange for the institutional infrastructure that served us during the cold war.  The United States and Europe, instead of coming up with new ideas and frameworks, decided to stay with the old, incumbent, political frameworks without offering any changes (for example) to the United Nations and other world institutions.  It was about getting rich, enjoying life, and celebrating the end of history- but guess what, history doesn’t end.

We were all thrilled by the end of the cold-war, but without a map for the future we will lunge from crisis to crisis.

If you offer no vision for the future, someone else will.  Our geopolitics cannot tolerate a vacuum, and if you retreat- whether physically or ideologically- someone else will come up with a plan which may not be complementary for democracy.

Democracy produced high living standards, technology and wealth and many people benefited.  In many countries, authoritarian leaders could exercise power by suppressing democracy at home, but exploiting the instruments of democracy abroad.  Putin uses high oil prices, the western financial system, and the technology of the free world.  This created much better living standards for the Russian people, but slowly eroded at their freedom. Then, when oil prices fell, Russians were left without the economic and other freedoms required for growth. A similar result, even more extreme, is happening in Venezuela. Repressive systems have no resiliency.

The free world has been living in a complacent status-quo, avoiding risk and creating political and economic stalemate, reducing growth.  This environment lacks dynamism and thus encourages the fringes to be more vocal; representing those groups who are most frustrated by the situation.

We live longer than ever before, demand better conditions than ever before, and older people vote in much greater numbers than the young.  Guess what, older people want the status-quo, and politicians respond to that- creating more stagnation.  In Europe and the United States this created a simultaneous rise in fringe parties on the left and the right.  In the United States you had Donald Trump, but also Bernie Sanders.  In the United Kingdom, you have Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage.  In France you have Le Pen and Mélenchon.

We are seeing political upheaval in all major western countries which tells us that there is something fundamentally wrong with public mood.

Q: Why does society keep repeating such old behaviours?

[Garry Kasparov] The progress our world has made has primarily occurred in what has been termed the ‘free world,’ the remaining 87% of the population- who live in the ‘un-free world’ have not seen much of the benefits.

For political leaders such as Putin, Erdogan and their peers; conflict remains a very important part of their legacy.  They have to try to legitimise their rule without fair elections, and foreign confrontations give them a vehicle to justify their claim on power.

Potential for conflict always exists in our world, like a volcano.  We may normally see only a few bubbles, but every now and again the explosive forces rise to the surface.

Look at how Trump raised the Mexican issue, he always looked for confrontation in his political campaign.  In the big picture, this is no different to the arguments laid down by Putin, Erdogan or the leader of North Korea… I’m not going to put Trump on the same level as them, of course, but as a character you see the same mechanism in action. It works.

People like Trump rally people behind them by pointing out threats; these may be real, but most likely are imaginary or inflated. Then he says, “only I can protect you.

In the free-world, people are getting lazy and complacent after decades of continuous improvement of living standards.  The economy however, does not always go up, and we should expect dives.  We are trying to prevent a dive now by printing money, slowing the economy down, and piling up debt.  This creates an uncomfortable situation for many people who were used to living conditions going up decade to decade.  This is the complex of the Baby Boomers, the first generation that never experienced the threat of extermination, never experienced a major war, and only had good news.  For this generation, they had technological progress but growth has stalled.  They can easily therefore follow someone who blames migrants, minorities and others.  It is always easy to blame someone for your unwillingness or inability to act.

Q: What would be your advice to the next generation?

[Garry Kasparov] More and more young people are getting interested in politics, and we should praise Trump for waking them up, even though that was not his intention.

Democracy is not something that is granted forever.  Ronald Reagan once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction” and our democratic instruments have got rusty, as people assumed they would always work automatically.

The Trump victory demonstrated that many traditional pillars of democracy, such as avoiding conflict of interest and separation of powers—judicial from executive and legislative—are in danger.  The only solution to stopping this decline is to engage in politics, not give up.

Look at the chaos being spread around by Trump’s total incompetence, just in the first few months of his Presidency.  It is perhaps this chaos that has woken voters up to fight back against the rise of populism.

Trump isn’t intelligent enough to drive populism, but his inner circle… people like Steve Bannon… point out existing problems.  Whether you talk about Farage, Le Pen or Bannon, they point out existing problems, saying the current government cannot run the country.  Their solutions however will only ever make the situation much worse.

It’s very important to have an educated debate around democracy.  People have immense power in their pockets.  When I talk to young people, I emphasise they have enormous power in their smartphones- which are several times more powerful than the fastest supercomputers of the previous generation.

The younger generation can use this power to get engaged in politics.  They can fight back against political issues like rising debt and the environmental crisis.  If younger people don’t vote, older people will win, and guess what – older people don’t care what will happen in 30 years, of course they will vote for more debt!

There is always a balance of interest, and if you want to improve your life- think about what you want the world to look like in 20-30 years, and get engaged in political change now while you still have the chance.

Q: What could we achieve by cooperating with technology rather than fighting it?

[Garry Kasparov] We cannot think about technology in confrontational terms.  There is no race against the machines, there is no fight, no war.  We have to end this long, historical confrontational narrative.

Playing chess, I learned the dramatic effect combining humans and machines.  Humans have intuition, can recognise patterns and positions, and machines have brute-force of calculation and memory.  By bringing these capabilities together in other walks of life, we can achieve incredible results.

Whilst machines are taking over more parts of our lives, and people say this is killing many jobs, we have to realise this has been happening for thousands of years.  Machines replaced farm animals, then manual labour, and now they’re taking over jobs from people with college degrees and twitter accounts- and everyone is making a big noise.  Replacing manual labour allowed humanity to concentrate on developing our minds, and now, perhaps by taking over more menial aspects of our cognition, machines will help us to look for greater creativity, curiosity and happiness.

There are many aspects of humanity which make us indispensable, and we have to find the right interface between us and technology.   I don’t want us to be so bothered about the long term future.  The Terminator and the Matrix were great movies, but created a dystopian and fearful vision of the future; they think machines will take-over.  Machines will of course take jobs, but they will create new jobs too.

New technology takes old jobs, creates new jobs, and generates to economic growth; this is how we will move forward.  Instead of talking of jobs lost, we have to focus on the people who need help with this, and may find difficulty adjusting.  If we slow down the cycle, we are just creating more pain- old jobs will disappear, entire careers and sectors will be automated, but new jobs will not be created fast enough to generate the growth we need unless we keep going forward.

Many of the problems that people are concerned about are too far in the future.  Instead of worrying about powerful artificial intelligences in the future, we should be concerned about the lack of intelligence in the Oval Office today!

Embracing technology will allow us to continue those great endeavours of humanity such as exploring space and the oceans; things which are too risky for us to do otherwise.  Machines are pushing people to new frontiers, and teach us that complacency and the status-quo are not working.

Q: What was it like for you to play chess against a machine?

[Garry Kasparov] Deep Blue was anything but intelligent.  Once databases were big enough, hardware was fast enough, and algorithms were smart enough, chess could be number-crunched.  Today, a free chess app on your phone plays better than Deep Blue, but that’s the way technology always goes. Deep Blue was a great achievement, and reached its goal, so demanding that it also be conscious, or sentient, or be able to explain how it beat me, is ridiculous.  Computers of that age were not intelligent in the sense most people use the term, but this does raise the philosophical question of whether the result of the process is the sign of intelligence, or the process itself.

Many people believe AI will replicate the way we make decisions, but today we have machines such as IBM Watson and Alpha Go which are much more likely to satisfy our expectations of this- but in so many areas, machines can’t match us.

Algorithms are improving all the time, but they do not have a purpose. We need humans for that.

What I learned from the match with Deep Blue was that anything we know how to do, we can invent machines to do better, irrespective of whether that is manual or intellectual.  There are however, so many things we do that we don’t know how we do- and that’s where we need to concentrate our efforts.

For these things, the unknowns, the mysteries, the challenges, if we don’t know what our purpose is, we cannot therefore tell machines to have that same purpose. They will help us achieve our new goals if we keep improving them.

There are so many things in life we do because we know they’re right, without really knowing why.  Those intuitive things exist in a different domain.

We have to remain creative and push for new frontiers.  Perhaps one day machines will be able to create algorithms from scratch, and teach each other what they need to know, but this won’t happen fast. We are seeing a version of this now, on a limited scale, with AI tools improving themselves incrementally, and this is the cycle we need to expand.

We need to stop making predictions because technology will always prove us wrong… Look at today’s lucrative jobs such as drone pilot, 3D printing engineer or social media manager- these jobs simply didn’t exist even ten years ago….

A hundred years ago people wouldn’t take an elevator without an operator, they were scared about pushing the buttons… 25 to 30 years from now, our grandchildren will look back at our society and feel mortified that there was a time when humans drove cars and caused so many accidents!

Let’s not exhaust our thinking and productivity worrying about the distant future, we have enough to do today, now and in the next few years.   Every technological breakthrough creates positive and negative effects.  AI plays potentially positive roles, but can also generate fake-news, can also launch new attacks on the foundation of our institutions.  Let’s work on a new game-plan, a new strategic framework for society.

As a species, we can event remarkable things, and be extraordinarily creative, but we sadly lack a strategy for the future.

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Interviewee biography

Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the Soviet Union in 1963, Garry Kasparov became the under-18 chess champion of the USSR at the age of 12 and the world under-20 champion at 17. He came to international fame at the age of 22 as the youngest world chess champion in history in 1985. He defended his title five times, including a legendary series of matches against arch-rival Anatoly Karpov. Kasparov broke Bobby Fischer’s rating record in 1990 and his own peak rating record remained unbroken until 2013. His famous matches against the IBM super-computer Deep Blue in 1996-97 were key to bringing artificial intelligence, and chess, into the mainstream.

Kasparov’s was one of the first prominent Soviets to call for democratic and market reforms and was an early supporter of Boris Yeltsin’s push to break up the Soviet Union. In 1990, he and his family escaped ethnic violence in his native Baku as the USSR collapsed. In 2005, Kasparov, in his 20th year as the world’s top-rated player, retired from professional chess to join the vanguard of the Russian pro-democracy movement. In 2012, Kasparov was named chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, succeeding Vaclav Havel. HRF promotes individual liberty worldwide and organizes the Oslo Freedom Forum. Facing imminent arrest during Putin’s crackdown, Kasparov moved from Moscow to New York City in 2013.

The US-based Kasparov Chess Foundation non-profit promotes the teaching of chess in education systems around the world. Its program already in use in schools across the United States, KCF also has centers in Brussels, Johannesburg, Singapore, and Mexico City. Garry and his wife Daria travel frequently to promote the proven benefits of chess in education and have toured Africa extensively.

Kasparov has been a contributing editor to The Wall Street Journal since 1991 and is a regular commentator on politics and human rights. He speaks frequently to business and political audiences around the world on technology, strategy, politics, and achieving peak mental performance. He is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Oxford-Martin School with a focus on human-machine collaboration. He’s a member of the executive advisory board of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics and a Security Ambassador for Avast Software, where he discusses cyber security and the digital future. Kasparov’s book How Life Imitates Chess on strategy and decision-making is available in over 20 languages. He is the author of two acclaimed series of chess books, My Great Predecessors and Modern Chess. Kasparov’s 2015 book, Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped is a blend of history, memoire, and current events analysis.

Kasparov’s next book is Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins. (May 2017) It details his matches against Deep Blue, his years of research and lectures on human and machine competition and collaboration, and his cooperation with the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. He says,

AI will transform everything we do and we must press forward ambitiously in the one area robots cannot compete with humans: in dreaming big dreams. Our machines will help us achieve them. Instead of worrying about what machines can do, we should worry more about what they still cannot do.


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