Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Again With the Risks

January 26, 2010

Whether you’re a designer or a plumber or a banker, this article is meant for you.

Following on the heels of my Risk post and set of wallpapers I find this gem of an article, “The Chess Master and the Computer,” by a hero of mine, Garry Kasparov. Much of the article is concerned with what was man’s race to create a computer/program that could outplay a chess grandmaster. This goal has, of course, long since been achieved. The article goes on to examine some details of the work since that time, part of which has been to better explore the synthesized results of humans + computers and the even more compelling chess playing results thus produced. And there is a lesson in the facts that follow.

What the article resolves toward, however, is to note our dangerous fascination with brute-force efforts only toward quantifiably-successful ends. As with the path we’ve resolved to take with computer chess programs, our goal in most aspects of life is to increasingly and arbitrarily discard the risky—and therefore often unsuccessful—paths in our work and to pay attention only to the provably-successful paths. By my observation, this practice is increasingly common in all facets of Western life. In short, risk is quite systematically and perhaps literally being bred out of our intellectual arsenal.

As a student of history and a discriminating and habitual observer of human endeavors and potential I can say with confidence that few things could be as dangerous as continuing along this path. Slavery and anesthetic existence are the only things we will find at the end…that and the disappearance of most of what makes our culture and lifestyle appealing. It is not my purpose here to be melodramatic; I’m simply stating facts supported by logic and historical precedence (rather than the weapons used by most detractors: intention and guesses.

Okay, enough doom and gloom for the moment

Thankfully, Garry ends his essay with hope, by touching on the activities that have begun to replace chess for many gaming enthusiasts. He notes an important benefit in the emergence of poker as a popular tactical and strategic pastime. Seemingly innocuous, there’s a powerful lesson here as well. My favorite part is his last paragraph:

“Perhaps the current trend of many chess professionals taking up the more lucrative pastime of poker is not a wholly negative one. It may not be too late for humans to relearn how to take risks in order to innovate and thereby maintain the advanced lifestyles we enjoy. And if it takes a poker-playing supercomputer to remind us that we can't enjoy the rewards without taking the risks, so be it.”

Thanks for that reminder, Garry. Life as we know it is not possible without risk. We should be very careful of what we wish for.

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Many thanks to Maria Popova for linking to this article, and to JohnO for pointing me to the link.

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