The story of man vs machine is as much about a PR victory as about tech
A view from Sue Unerman

The story of man vs machine is as much about a PR victory as about tech

It's 20 years since chess grand master Gary Kasparov was beaten by a computer, but was it the crushing victory IBM claimed it to be?...

In May 1997, IBM's Big Blue computer beat chess world master Gary Kasparov. 

As one pundit wrote: "The world champion found himself humbled by a 1.4 tonne heap of silicone in a victory for IBM's Deep Blue that marks a milestone in the progress of artificial intelligence. It is a depressing day for humankind in general."

Last month he published the story of that defeat in "Deep Thinking: where machine intelligence ends and human creativity begins".

It is, as the title indicates, a positive spin on the chess defeat, with lessons for everyone who's worried about the robots coming to take industry jobs.

Kasparov had won one match, lost one match and drawn the other three, so it was only the decider that was lost.

Two decades ago IBM publicised the Big Blue victory as widely as possible, and the story of man vs machine is as much about a PR victory as about technology. In fact one might imagine that PR jobs might be safe from the robots, as manufacturing a good press release has so far proved algorithm proof for businesses looking to gain positive publicity.

One of Kasparov's biggest resentments from the time of the tournament was that he wasn't allowed a rematch. Deep Blue only won the final match of six.

Until that point Kasparov had won one match, lost one match and drawn the other three, so it was only the decider that was lost.

Why on earth would IBM however, whose agenda was clearly about the superiority of their product, countenance a rematch?

IBM's telling of the story was the real victory. Their press release read: "Behind the contest was important computer science, pushing forward the ability of computers to handle the kinds of complex calculations needed to help discover new medical drugs; do the broad financial modelling needed to identify trends and do risk analysis; handle large database searches; and perform massive calculations needed in many fields of science."

Of course Moore's Law did make the computer’s victory against one man inevitable – Men get older whereas computers get smarter.

Kasparov's take on the story now is less bitter. He points out that there's been a massive benefit to young chess players as they can learn to win by playing computers. Man might lose to machines, yet man plus machine will beat a machine – or in his words, "Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer [is] overwhelming."

We must allow the robots to take over the jobs that they are better at. They are only as good as the information that we feed them, and at the decisions we allow them to take.

They’re great at analytics. They’re obviously less great at disregarding evidence and making a big surprising strategic leap.

In 2004 Kasparov said: "Ultimately, what separates a winner from a loser at the grand-master level is the willingness to do the unthinkable".

The real competitive edge will not come from a data and tech arms race but from a set of people who know how to interpret the data, understand the trends that inform it, and can invent new communications strategies from the learnings in an agile way.

Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer at MediaCom UK.
@SueU