What is Deep Thinking? A Critique of Garry Kasparov’s Book “Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins”

Deep thinking is the title of a book by former chess world-champion Garry Kasparov. The subtitle is “Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins.”

It may seem like a good idea to read such a book, in a time where the word “deep” is increasingly used to qualify algorithmic software, as in “deep learning”. We are in a curious time of human history where machines are said to be “deep”.

There is very little about “deep thinking” in Kasparov’s book, which is a superficial piece of writing. The current myth of the “deep learning machine” with its mysterious and supposedly-new form of intelligence is in fact similar to the former myth about chess as a deep game. Since Kasparov spends most pages describing his former chess competitions and how he lost against IBM’s computer, the main benefit of the book is to confirm that there is nothing necessarily deep about being a good chess player.

In the introduction, Kasparov briefly qualifies what he thinks is really and deeply human, id est the mental characteristics that elevate us, such as “creativity, curiosity, beauty, and joy.” He does not however expand on this charming list, but rather goes on, chapter after chapter, describing: 1 – his resentment for having lost — in conditions deemed unfair — against a computer, twenty years ago, as is now well-known; 2 – suggesting we must surrender and collaborate with computers in the future if we are to survive.

Kasparov writes: “It wasn’t until I retired from professional chess in 2005 that I had time to think more deeply about thinking and to see chess as a lens through which to investigate the decision-making processes that define every second of our waking lives.” This sounds interesting but we wonder why the author has not included in the book the intellectual results of this realisation. In fact Kasparov here writes very little about decision-making and even less about deep thinking. His throwaway remark (which should have been the synopsis and content of the book) suggests two ideas: first, when you are deeply involved in work and producing results, thinking about your practice is difficult. Second, once you have time to reflect upon it, the impression of thinking might not lead to any tangible formulation: we might think that we are thinking or that we have deep thoughts while in fact we have just an impression of thinking (this often happens in dreams or under the effect of drugs). Since we believe Kasparov did not write his book after taking LSD, we must conclude that he wrote it in his sleep.

To play chess is to dream about big thoughts that never happen. In the meantime, still, you can win a few games and some money. Once you retire, you can win some extra money by writing books that capitalise on your fame while exhibiting dishonest and pompous titles.

It is particularly significant that one of the best chess players in the world calls his book “deep thinking” without explaining at all what he thinks is deep thinking, what is a decision, what is a thought. This is worrying because the author also suggests that the only reason why machines, robots and supercomputers won’t replace the human race is because we are capable of deep thinking. Given the failure of the book to show what deep thinking is, the unwilling conclusion is that computers will indeed erase us from the surface of the earth if we are all as dishonest and lazy with our thinking as Kasparov is. Robots might write on humanity’s grave, as an epitaph: “To the most pretentious, intellectually lazy, and blindly dishonest spiritual species that ever existed.”

Kasparov is pretentious. For example, he suggests that Americans “have become lazy, short-sighted, and unwilling to take the risks required to stay on the cutting edge of technology.” Apart from the fact that Kasparov’s pride or own laziness prevents him from seeing that his book is itself lazy and short-sighted, the chess player implies that staying at “the cutting edge of technology” is the paradigm of an ambitious nation. He does not write “the cutting edge of thought” or “the cutting edge of philosophy”, neither does he write “the cutting edge of joy, creativity and curiosity”, failing to be coherent with his introduction. Kasparov is blindly dishonest: his book fails to understand that, if serious chess is time-limited, serious thought takes time and patience. Apparently, one can be an excellent chess player and lack the patience to think.

There are a few more or less voluntary hints in Kasparov’s book towards the beginning of a reflection on the question of thinking. But most of the time, they are given as anecdotes in between too descriptions of chess-competition gossip. For example, the author quotes Picasso: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” And without reflecting on what Picasso might have meant, he quickly proceeds to quote Dave Ferruci, one of the creators of the IBM artificial intelligence project Watson: “Computers do know how to ask questions. They just don’t know which ones are important.”

What seems to be suggested by these remarks is the fact that human thought can be strategic, rather than only tactic. “It’s essential to first understand your long-term goals so you don’t confuse them with reactions, opportunities, or mere milestones.” This suggests that deep thinking is related to the future in general, and to future outcomes in particular. In fact, what is called “deep” or “depth of search” in the world of artificial intelligence is precisely the capacity of certain computer programs to evaluate probable outcomes and predict variations of outcomes as far as possible into the near future. Deepness in computer science is not about going down into the mysterious well of life or wisdom, like Orpheus looking for his soulmate in hell. “Deep learning” and deep software are tools that project probabilities into possible future events as far as possible, and then chose an action that has a high probability of producing the expected outcome. Strategic thinking is an attractive idea, but it is in fact contaminated by the logic of future outcomes, and the paradigm of competition or war. Not everything is about wining or losing.

“Long-term goals” is an attractive idea also, but what qualifies for long-term? Is it one year? Is it ten years? Is it a life time? Is it eternity? According to Kasparov, it is “the big picture”. But what is the big picture? “We humans, he writes, have enough trouble figuring out what we want and how best to achieve it, so it’s no wonder we have trouble getting machines to look at the big picture.” So this is the message of the book: deep thinking is about looking at “the big picture” and we have no idea what this is. Kasparov seems to suggest, very evasively, that deep thinking is a strategic thinking about our big picture goals, involving not only selfish preoccupations, but also the future of humanity. Apparently, anyway, we are not much better at it than computers. And the ideal of the big picture does not prevent one from writing fake books. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

A tactical way of thinking is concerned with the problem at hand. Somewhat in contradiction with his praise of strategic thinking, Kasparov explains that “we often do our best thinking under pressure. Our senses are heightened and our intuition is activated in a way that is unique to stress and competition. We often do not realize how powerful our intuitive abilities are until we have no choice but to rely on them.” Two different definitions of what deep thinking is start to emerge here: one that says that thinking is a strategic consideration for long-term goals. Another that says that thinking emerges from a sense of urgency when facing present problems in an intuitive way. Kasparov could have reflected upon these questions: Can we use intuition to think strategically? Are these two incompatible ways of thinking? He does refer briefly at the end of the book to Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and the fact that his own faith in intuition has been shaken by the results of experimental psychology (Kahneman, Tversky, Ariely et al.), the field that suggests that what we call our intuitive sixth sense is often wrong in evaluating a situation. For Kasparov, the best way to overcome our limitations and combine strategy and intuition seems to be to create teams of computers and humans: “One of the many benefits human-machine collaboration is helping us overcome lazy cognitive habits.”

Deep thinking, the author suggests rather unwillingly, is thinking with the machine. Or not?

At the end of the book (p 244), Kasparov in fact confesses: “I have no universal tips or tricks for becoming a disciplined thinker, and what works for me might not work for others.” Let’s put aside the obvious question any reader might ask: “So Garry, why did you write a book called Deep Thinking?” By page 244, any serious reader has realised that Kasparov has no idea of what “disciplined thinking” might be. His book is lazy, self-absorbed, unstructured, and anecdotic.

In the brief and shallow conclusion, the chess player writes about the future of humanity in an AI environment: “The game is on the way and we are all on the board. The only way to win is to think bigger and to think deeper. […] We will need every bit of our ambition in order to stay ahead of our technology. […] If we stop dreaming big dreams, if we stop looking for a greater purpose, then we may as well be machines ourselves.” Well, Garry, do you mean market automatons that produce empty books for the sake of capitalizing on fame? 

In order to avoid becoming a machine, I suggest we now briefly paraphrase the book’s unintentional argument. It could be summed up as follows: “I, Garry Kasparov have played chess all my life. Chess is a good training in visualising situations that might happen not just one minute ahead but also a few moves ahead, say twenty minutes. This has been called strategic thinking or super-intelligence for a long time because we humans like myths about what we do (otherwise life would be boring). We cultivated for centuries a myth about chess being a game about strategic thinking and high intelligence, but the reality is that chess is a socially prestigious board game for people who have a very good memory, some capacity for logical visualisation, and like in most games, the ambition to win. Many talented people are in fact bored by chess [and contrary to what Kasparov suggests, Napoleon was a very bad chess player]. I, Garry Kasparov have been defeated by a computer twenty years ago, and today a common computer game in your phone is stronger than most humans at chess. Some people therefore conclude that computers or mobile phones are intelligent, but in fact this only demonstrates that chess playing was an over-estimated myth about intelligence. This is why I, Garry Kasparov, a former chess world-champion cannot tell you anything about what is deep thinking because chess has not more to do with deep thinking than cleaning the dishes.” Kasparov does not write this explicitly, of course. But it is what a serious reader can conclude. And now can we get our money back?

Any computer can play chess. Not anybody can think deeply. Now contrary to Kasparov I have to try and be intellectually honest and propose my answer to the question of deep thinking, although I would not dare write a book with such pretentious title.

I have written about the matter in my books in some detail. Here I will only suggest to reflect on the following sentence: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

“Be fruitful and multiply.” This is of course a quotation from Genesis 1:28, and a superficial reading usually understands it as an injunction to reproduce physically. For our purpose, it does not matter to assume that this is what god said, and I am not advocating a return to the Bible. I am a philosopher, not a priest. And here is my thought on deep thinking.

“Be fruitful and multiply”: We can assume that this is what Nature and life tells us. We can also assume that we are nihilists who fail to be fruitful, or “losers” who fail to multiply in a metaphorical sense. My suggestion is very simple, and does not take 300 pages, just a few lines: you will become a deep thinker if you spend the rest of your life reflecting on these four words: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Are you a fruitful person?

How are you fruitful and how do you multiply yourself when you are not making children or money?

Think about it honestly and your thought will become your world.

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