Former chess world champion on encouraging “garage” innovation culture, collaboration and life after COVID-19
Garry Kasparov is considered by most chess experts to be the best player in the history of the game – the best human player, that is. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1963, he first played a pawn aged around six. He became a grandmaster at the age of 17, and five years later Mr Kasparov was crowned world champion – a position he held for 20 years, until he retired in 2005.
In May 1997, when at the peak of his powers, Mr Kasparov famously played a rematch with Deep Blue, a chess-playing computer developed by IBM. Man had triumphed 4–2 over machine the previous year, when the pair first met. On the eve of the rematch, Newsweek ran a preview titled “The Brain’s Last Stand”. The hopes of humanity rested on Mr Kasparov’s shoulders.
On this second meeting, Deep Blue was smarter and bettered its human opponent 3½–2½, becoming the first computer system to defeat a reigning world champion in a match under standard chess tournament time controls. Consider that Deep Blue used a “brute-force” approach, with its 256 processors able to process 200 million possible moves every second. The slain champion, now 63, says that it was inevitable that machine would triumph, sooner rather than later.
Since retiring 15 years ago, Mr Kasparov has become known as one of the great intellects of the 21st century, and has thrived away from the chessboard as a writer and political activist. In mid-April he helped organise The Global Hack, the world’s largest-ever hackathon to develop solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic. Between April 9 and 12, some 12,000 participants from almost 100 countries came together – virtually – to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. Following the successful event, MillGens caught up with Mr Kasparov.
MillGens: Why were you attracted to The Global Hack? What were you hoping it would achieve?
Garry Kasparov: “It was an easy decision. The Global Hack combined several of my interests: tech innovation with a grounding in the values of the free world. Aside from the practical focus on the hacks themselves, it’s great to celebrate the ‘garage’ innovation culture that was responsible for so much of the technology in the modern world. With the offices all closed now, we’re forced back to the garage.”
What were the most encouraging solutions that were thrust forward from The Global Hack?
“It definitely delivered on inspiration as much as products and plans. As an ‘inspirer’ and not a techie myself, I was happy that Avast and I could get involved as sponsors and as a track leader. It’s important for people to see the small contributions, not just big, well-funded ones, so they think: ‘Hey, I could do something like that.’ This crisis is already spurring a lot of home-brew innovation across the world, from ventilator and mask hacks to musical collaboration and community organisation.
“Necessity is the mother of invention. And going forward, Avast’s and most of the other sponsorship fees were largely used to fund the realisation of the winning projects. This is one of the reasons that made the Global Hack’s concept so strong, it’s not just pie-in-the-sky. We will hopefully see some of the solutions in action soon.
“The deserving winners are worth a look, and it’s good they reflect not just very concrete needs like the solar-powered hygiene station SunCrafter, but also recognising the broader and more subtle impacts of a world on lockdown. The Act On Crisis app that puts people in touch with mental health experts is a great example of humanistic tech. Simple, effective. The winner of the work track, where I was a lead, Serw, is a strong pitch because it’s something that’s essential now: a videoconference-based business ecosystem. But it shows a paradigm that will also have a lasting impact post-COVID-19.”
What is your reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what do you think it means for humankind – present and future?
“We all tend to overestimate the long-term impact of current events, so I’ll get that out of the way first, because I do it too. The truth is, we tend to revert, or even regress, back to the familiar. So much will depend on how long this lasts. If the very best-case scenario unfolds and a combination of weather, treatments, and rapid vaccines have us out of lockdown by the end of summer, I’m not sure it will change the world so much. But if our behaviour is still very different from before through 2020, there will be lasting impacts on business and education, and probably politics as well.
“My reaction is typical of everyone’s: this crisis validates my previous thinking. In this case, it reflects the decrease of ambitious and experimental research in the sciences over the past 30 years. Vaccine research wasn’t profitable so it was discarded. The next superbug will expose a similar lack of investment in antibiotics. And so on. Every crisis, from a volcano in Iceland to a virus from China, shows us that playing it safe is the opposite, it puts us at risk. I hope we learn that larger lesson and realise we must shoot for the stars instead of simply preparing to fight the last war.”
You famously called Deep Blue a $10m alarm clock. How alarming – or otherwise – has the progression of technological advancement been since 1996?
“Pretty much as predicted by Moore’s Law – and, for the record, I don’t find anything alarming about it. Yes, Deep Blue was a wake-up call for me, and for the world, but rapid tech progress is fantastic. We should celebrate it instead of fretting and fear-mongering. New technology is why most of us are still alive to complain about new technology. The digital world can change even faster than the material world, so the rate is increasing in some areas. But even that can be to our advantage if we go into the unknown instead of simply making existing things faster.”