Grandmasters and Global Growth
By Kenneth Rogoff
As the global economy limps out of the last decade and enters a new one in
2010, what will be the next big driver of global growth? Here’s betting
that the “teens” is a decade in which artificial intelligence hits
escape velocity, and starts to have an economic impact on par with the emergence
of India and China.
Admittedly, my perspective is heavily colored by events in the world of chess,
a game I once played at a professional level and still follow from a distance.
Though special, computer chess nevertheless offers both a window into silicon
evolution and a barometer of how people might adapt to it.
A little bit of history might help. In 1996 and 1997, World Chess Champion
Gary Kasparov played a pair of matches against an IBM computer named “Deep
Blue.” At the time, Kasparov dominated world chess, in the same way that
Tiger Woods – at least until recently – has dominated golf. In the
1996 match, Deep Blue stunned the champion by beating him in the first game.
But Kasparov quickly adjusted to exploit the computer’s weakness in long-term
strategic planning, where his judgment and intuition seemed to trump the computer’s
Unfortunately, the supremely confident Kasparov did not take Deep Blue seriously
enough in the 1997 rematch. Deep Blue shocked the champion, winning the match
3.5 to 2.5. Many commentators have labeled Deep Blue’s triumph one of
the most important events of the twentieth century.
Perhaps Kasparov would have won the rematch had it continued to a full 24 games
(then the standard length of world championship matches). But, over the next
few years, even as humans learned from computers, computers improved at a far
With ever more powerful processors, silicon chess players developed the ability
to calculate so far ahead that the distinction between short-term tactical calculations
and long-term strategic planning became blurred. At the same time, computer
programs began to exploit huge databases of games between grandmaster (the highest
title in chess), using results from the human games to extrapolate what moves
have the highest chances of success. Soon, it became clear that even the best
human chess players would have little chance to do better than an occasional
Today, chess programs have become so good that even grandmasters sometimes
struggle to understand the logic behind some of their moves. In chess magazines,
one often sees comments from top players such as “My silicon friend says
I should have moved my King instead of my Queen, but I still think I played
the best ‘human’ move.”
It gets worse. Many commercially available computer programs can be set to
mimic the styles of top grandmasters to an extent that is almost uncanny. Indeed,
chess programs now come very close to passing the late British mathematician
Alan Turing’s ultimate test of artificial intelligence: can a human conversing
with the machine tell it is not human?
I sure can’t. Ironically, as computer-aided cheating increasingly pervades
chess tournaments (with accusations reaching the highest levels), the main detection
device requires using another computer. Only a machine can consistently tell
what another computer would do in a given position. Perhaps if Turing were alive
today, he would define artificial intelligence as the inability of a computer
to tell whether another machine is human!
So has all this put chess players out of work? Encouragingly, the answer is
“not yet.” In fact, in some ways, chess is as popular and successful
today as at any point in the last few decades. Chess lends itself very well
to Internet play, and fans can follow top-level tournaments in real time, often
with commentary. Technology has helped thoroughly globalize chess, with the
Indian Vishy Anand now the first Asian world champion, and the handsome young
Norwegian Magnus Carlsen having reached rock-star status. Man and machine have
learned to co-exist, for now.
Of course, this is a microcosm of the larger changes that we can expect. The
horrible computerized telephone-answering systems that we all now suffer with
might actually improve. Imagine, someday you might actually prefer digital to
In 50 years, computers might be doing everything from driving taxis to performing
routine surgery. Sooner than that, artificial intelligence will transform higher
learning, potentially making a world-class university education broadly affordable
even in poor developing countries. And, of course, there are more mundane but
crucial uses of artificial intelligence everywhere, from managing the electronics
and lighting in our homes to populating “smart grids” for water
and electricity, helping monitor these and other systems to reduce waste.
In short, I do not share the view of many that, after the Internet and the
personal computer, it will be a long wait until the next paradigm-shifting innovation.
Artificial intelligence will provide the boost that keeps the teens rolling.
So, despite a rough start from the financial crisis (which will still slow global
growth this year and next), there is no reason why the new decade has to be
an economic flop.
Barring another round of deep financial crises, it won’t be – as
long as politicians do not stand in the way of the new paradigm of trade, technology,
and artificial intelligence.
Kenneth Rogoff is Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and Professor
of Economics at Harvard University. From 2001-2003, he served as Chief Economist
and Director of Research at the International Monetary Fund. He is also a former
Director of the Center for International Development at Harvard. Rogoff’s
research covers global economic issues, including exchange rates, international
capital flows and monetary policy. His treatise Foundations of International
Macroeconomics (joint with Maurice Obstfeld) is the standard graduate text in
the field worldwide, and his monthly syndicated column on global economic issues
is published in 13 languages in over 50 countries. Rogoff is on the Economic
Advisory Panel of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Central Bank
of Sweden. He is currently writing a book (with Carmen Reinhart) on the history
of international financial crises over nine centuries.
Rogoff is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as
well as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission
and the Group of Thirty. He is also a fellow of the Econometric Society and
the World Economic Forum, and has been invited to give numerous named campus-wide
lectures at universities around the world. He holds the life title of international
grandmaster of chess, and at his peak was ranked number 40 in the world.
More detailed biographical information including full cv and editorial writings
can be found here.
A webpage on his widely known new book on the history of financial crises with
Professor Carmen M Reinhart's can be found here.
PBS Newshour report with Rogoff and Reinhart