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Twenty-four years ago today, an earth-shattering technological event changed the world and ushered in new certainty that robots will become more intelligent than people — possibly within the next decade.

In 1996, Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov defeated IBM’s Deep Blue computer in a six-game chess match.

He’d been expected to triumph due to the limited capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) at the time.

The following year he faced off with the computer once more, after it had undergone significant hardware improvements giving it the ability to simulate millions of moves in a single second before making its choice.

Experts predicted Kasparov would easily win again, including those who had developed the AI itself.



Garry Kasparov facing off against Deep Blue during the second game of their 1997 rematch

“While we were confident that the 1997 Deep Blue was much better than the 1996 version, in my mind the most probable outcome of the match was a draw,” former IBM staffer Murray Campbell has said.

“Even going into the final game of the match, I was expecting a draw, and a likely rematch.”

Robert Levinson, an associate professor of computer science said Deep Blue lacked “autonomy and adaptability” and that it would be “mind-blowing” if the computer managed to win.

Yet that’s exactly what happened.



Kasparov the moment after he admitted he'd been defeated by Deep Blue
Kasparov the moment after he admitted he’d been defeated by Deep Blue

Sitting across the chessboard from another human who played the moves dictated by Deep Blue, Kasparov won the first game on May 3, possibly due to a bug within the computer’s software that caused it to make a fatal mistake.

The next day’s match didn’t go so well for Kasparov and he eventually resigned, accusing IBM of cheating. He said only another human grandmaster would have been capable of such a sophisticated style of chess.

Games 3, 4 and 5 were all draws but Deep Blue won the final game and the match overall. Video of the moment, which was broadcast live on TV, shows Kasparov throwing up his hands and walking away from the board.

The triumph of AI shocked the world and prompted scientists to start seriously reconsidering their beliefs around the capabilities of computers and how intelligent they could become in the future.

It also reignited interest in the theory of the “singularity”, which refers to the moment AI will overtake the human brain.

This event has gone from being treated as a hypothetical to a certainty, with the looming predicted date inching closer with every new technological advancement.



Kasparov was initially bitter about his loss but came to change his mind about AI
Kasparov was initially bitter about his loss but came to change his mind about AI

In 2005, futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted the singularity would occur in about 2045. But last year a new paper published in the International Journal of Astrobiology claimed it’s coming much sooner than that.

Joseph Gale from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his co-authors explicitly cited recent match-ups of computers with human experts in logic games as evidence of the singularity’s approach.

Direct descendants of the legendary Kasparov vs Deep Blue battle include the 2016 defeat of Lee Sedol, the reigning champion of the Chinese game Go, who was bested by the computer programme AlphaGO.



The Deep Blue computer underwent significant changes in the year between matches
The Deep Blue computer underwent significant changes in the year between matches

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In 2019 the Google-owned AI lab DeepMind announced its software AlphaStar had learned how to play the popular strategy game StarCraft II at a grandmaster level, capable of beating 99.8% of all human opponents.

“If we look at the calculating capacity of computers and compare it to the number of neurons in the human brain, the singularity could be reached as soon as the early 2020s,” Air and Space Magazine reported last year.

As for the first man beaten at his own game by a computer, he’s spent the last 24 years becoming more involved in developing chess-playing programmes.



Shocked viewers watch the moment Kasparov was defeated live on television
Shocked viewers watch the moment Kasparov was defeated live on television

While Kasparov was initially bitter in the wake of his defeat, he has since changed his position and expressed admiration for AI.

“From the beginning of the computer era, it was a belief that chess could serve as the ultimate test for machine intelligence,” Kasparov has said.

“And the game of chess has always been seen as the nexus for human intelligence. So when a machine faced a human in chess and won this battle… it could definitely be a revolutionary moment.”

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