Blitz Chess is a chess game where each players has to complete the whole game in under 10 minutes. There is an even faster version, called Bullet Chess, which reduces the time limit to 3 minutes. It is mesmerising to watch, as the players seemingly make moves instantaneously, in a game where we are used to seeing long pauses for deep thought. Often those who succeed at fast chess are also expert at classical chess: the top-ranked rapid players in both the male and female categories at the moment are also the top-ranked classical chess players.
Blitz Chess is a great case study for looking at AI and intuition, because chess is one of the games that AI has already become better at playing than humans. AI has no problem with fast chess. But Blitz Chess as a human experience is an intriguing way to interrogate intuition. Books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow tend to portray intuition as lightning-quick processing, the fruits of years of learning and experience (and bias). Intuition happens so fast that we are not aware of our own processing, so we tend to ascribe a kind of magic to it; a magic that the sceptics would argue simply is not there. They would see it in the same light as the immediacy of AI: excellent programming with sped-up processing. And there is certainly neuroscience research which attests that those who have become expert at chess have created these kinds of efficiencies in their brains through years of practice.
In the studies, those playing rapid chess are also particularly using their sight to process patterns at speed, both in computer chess and in physical chess games. This shows up as evidence of ‘theta power’ which is what the brain mobilises for navigational tasks as well as for memory retrieval. For Queen’s Gambit fans this might explain Beth’s addiction to the tranquillizers that seemingly enable her to visualise chess moves, because being in theta is associated with an enhanced capacity for daydreaming, imagery, and visualization.
This is in contrast to blindfold chess, where the player compensates for the lack of visual data by intensive internal data-mining, indicated by evidence of what is called alpha power, in the same way that an AI playing chess is also only using ‘internal’ resources. Interestingly, it has been argued that while the human capacity for mapping physical space has been vital in their evolution, this capacity in the brain has evolved such that now the same neurological processes are used for both physical mapping and for the navigation of mental space. An AI programmed with our evolved abilities benefits from this progression without now needing the physical experience which helped to develop it. And in spite of this interesting history and the data from neuroscience, competition results suggest that humans no longer have any advantage over AI when playing chess.
But is there anything in the act of playing a physical chess game with a human opponent that cannot be reduced to just the data of the game? I think there is. Because the person sitting on the other side of the board is not playing chess, they are playing me. Have you ever cheated by solving a maze backwards? Mazes are solvable because, while there are apparently many routes through, only one reaches the destination, so you can identify which it is by starting from the end. This makes a maze a solvable puzzle. In philosophy, there was a famous argument about puzzles, and whether they were the same as problems. It took place one October evening in 1946 at a meeting of the Cambridge Moral Science Club, between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. Tempers were so frayed by it that Wittgenstein reportedly threatened Popper with a poker. Popper’s essential point was that there are solvable things, like mathematical problems, and there are un-solvable things, which are the proper concern of philosophy. To muddle a solvable puzzle with an unsolvable problem is to commit a category error which encourages wasted effort, like using a screwdriver on a nail. This is the essential distinction between computer chess and in-person chess. Reducing chess to a puzzle – which is what AI does – allows it to zoom ahead of human chess players by becoming ever more efficient at solving the puzzle. With the rules as they are, a set board and specified pieces, there are only so many permutations that are possible, and an artificial brain will eventually be able to exhaust all of these possibilities, rendering it unbeatable. Eventually it will be like asking a calculator a sum, which is not a game but a calculation. However, humans play games as though they were problems. There is always the hope that there might be victory, because while humans are involved, the outcome can never be a foregone conclusion.
AI could be used to train a human so that they had the full range of possible solutions to hand, but an in-person game between two humans will always be unpredictable, because humans do not always follow the rules in the way that a computer is programmed to do, and humans make mistakes. Through their consciousness, they also have access to data other than their own memory bank of moves – and their knowledge of their opponent’s previous games – and they pick this data up through their senses. Did their opponent just pause? Are their eye movements unusual? Do they appear to be nervous or distracted? Perhaps an AI could be trained to detect this kind of data, but it would still lack the sixth sense to combine these qualia into action. A case in point is a recent story about the game Go. The AI AlphaGo having beaten the reigning world champion, it was thought that a human would never again be able to prevail. But a human used a competitor AI to analyse AlphaGo for weaknesses. The person used this information to devise a winning strategy, which involved slowly looping stones around one of the opponent’s own groups, while distracting the AI by making moves in other corners of the board. A human person’s intuition would have flagged this incursion, but the AI missed it. In terms of how humans evolved an ability to data-mine, because this grew out of our ability to read physical spatial information in our external environment, the folk memory of why we need this ability, encoded into our intuition, seems to be salient in such situations.
So what? Stop regarding the AI as the competition. It is not – it is your trainer. People are your competition, and to beat them you will need to be as good as AI, but better at humanity. Because it is not only your technical problem-solving skills that are at play in this game when you play it with a person, but your emotions, your intuition, and your sixth sense; and mastering them will give you the edge you need to win.
Robot Souls is due out 1 August 2023 and is available for pre-order here.