Magnus Carlsen’s Strongest Chess Opponent Is AI


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Is artificial intelligence going to lead to a lot more cheating?

A controversy erupted in St. Louis last week when Magnus Carlsen, the world chess champion, withdrew from a top tournament. One interpretation of his decision, drawing upon his tweet, is that he believes competitor Hans Niemann, who beat him in the third round, may have been cheating with computer assistance. Suspicions were raised further when Niemann admitted having cheated twice previously, and when issued a statement alleging yet further cheating and banning Niemann from its site.

The chess world has been abuzz ever since, egged on by Elon Musk, whose tweets considered the possibility that you could cheat in chess with vibrating anal beads. In theory the beads would transmit messages from an accomplice, watching the live games online and consulting computer programs to transmit nearly impeccable advice.

I don’t know what really happened in St. Louis, but I am interested in this controversy as a harbinger of the future. The better AI gets, the more humans will use it to their advantage, sometimes by cheating.

The first reality is that many people will work harder to be connected to their AIs, secretly or not. The St. Louis chess tournament used security precautions, including body searches, but that won’t be practical in most real-world settings. So people will be more likely to use their devices — headphones, hearing aids, their phones — to alert them when a situation spells trouble. The brazen will simply pull out their phones in the middle of negotiating sessions and read them for tips. It won’t be necessary to get vibrating beads (although some may prefer to).

Being an accomplice will be a job of its own. Maybe they sit in the stands of a baseball game and consult an AI, and take off their cap every time they believe the pitcher is about to throw a curve rather than a fastball. Or maybe those “poker faces” in Vegas aren’t so inscrutable after all, and an accomplice can signal to when to fold.

The good news is that AI assistance, or cheating as the case may be, will drive a lot of progress in human-machine interfaces. Right now Google Glass stands as a failure, but some version of the product may make a comeback. “Smart clothes” that transmit messages through the fabric are another option. You might walk into a bar and receive a directional message about which are the most eligible — or higher-earning — potential partners sitting in front of you. Facial and gait recognition are advancing too.

A subtler truth is that a lot of the cheating will be modest and marginal rather than blatant. Consider computer cheating in chess. If you find a way to consult the computer every move, you will win every game with near-perfect play. You will also be caught immediately. So you might cheat for only a few moves every game — enough to help but not so much to be detected. Given that both sides will employ countermeasures, and detect suspicious instances of clearly superior performance, a lot of cheating will be pretty mediocre, and deliberately so.

As decisive moments approach, games and competitions might become less honest — and tensions in the crowd will rise as people wonder whether they are watching the real thing or some AI-aided simulacrum. Brilliancies will forever be called into question. Dishonest players, in turn, will have to carefully consider when to exercise their de facto “cheating privileges.”

You might think that better physical inspections of the players would solve this problem, but advances in materials science will make it easier to evade restrictions. Hans Niemann joked about playing naked to silence the doubters. Perhaps someday it will come to that. Competitions are also increasingly online, whether it be e-Sports or online chess, so even a fully naked player could consult AI help from across the room.

You might also think that most players are not cheaters, and maybe you are right. At the same time, I am an NBA fan, and I notice that players are often willing to commit blatant fouls if they think the referee is not watching.

Perhaps one final lesson of the Carlsen-Niemann episode is that it will become harder and harder to know if cheating took place. Players will have gray reputations, and perhaps accusations of cheating will be ambiguous as well, as already seems to be the case from some of the top chess players who have commented on the dispute.

AI can bring clarity to many competitive and gaming situations. But it will not always bring clarity to the competitions and games themselves, or to the humans who play and watch them.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• AI Is About to Make Drug Discovery Much Faster: Lisa Jarvis

• AI’s Hold Over Humans Is Starting to Get Stronger: Parmy Olson

• There’s Legal Intrigue at the World Chess Match: Stephen Carter

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. He is coauthor of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.”

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