The TED Interview
Garry Kasparov on chess, technology, and democracy
July 14, 2022
[00:00:00] Steven Johnson:
This is the TED interview and I'm Steven Johnson. It was late in 1989, months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Garry Kasparov was 26 years old, just a few years into his reign as a world chess champion. And he was invited to sit down for an interview with an American magazine. Now, the magazine in question happened to be Playboy, an unusual venue for a Russian grandmaster to appear in.
But even more surprising was the language that Kasparov used to describe the Soviet Union. “Everyone has the same kind of normal human aspirations,” he told the interviewer. “There may be two political spheres in the world today, but normal lifestyle exists in only one of them, and that is not here in the Soviet Union life. Here is what I would call a distortion of normal life. It's like living in a house of mirrors. Well, the only way out is to smash those mirrors.”
Now the USSR had long celebrated its chess superstars as emblems of the superiority of the communist way of life. And so to have the wunderkind Kasparov of denouncing that way of life, in the decadent Playboy no less, was another sign of cracks appearing in the Soviet fortress.
But it was also the first glimpse of what would become a remarkable second act for Kasparov as a public intellectual and pro-democracy crusader. In the mid-nineties, he made headlines around the world when he lost the second of two chess matches against the IBM supercomputer, Deep Blue. In the wake of that loss, he began thinking and writing about the future of artificial intelligence, arguing that the future of AI was not so much about machines replacing humans in the workforce as it was about intelligent machines learning to collaborate with humans.
As Vladimir Putin consolidated power in post-Soviet Russia, Kasparov became one of the autocrat’s most vocal critics even writing a prophetic book in 2015 entitled Winter is Coming. In it, he warned the west that appeasing Putin would only encourage his territorial ambitions in Europe. Earlier this year, he opened the TED Conference with a stirring call to action in support of Ukraine.
[00:02:23] Garry Kasparov:
So let us talk now about, uh, the choices we make about seeing things in black and white, about Russia's war in Ukraine, and about good and evil.
[00:02:37] Steven Johnson:
So it seemed appropriate to invite him to appear as one of our first guests this season to explore his latest thinking on the Ukraine War, to look back at his remarkable career, and to talk about how more than three decades after that original interview, he's still smashing mirrors.
[00:02:54] Steven Johnson:
Garry Kasparov, welcome to the TED Interview.
[00:03:09] Garry Kasparov:
Thank you for inviting me.
[00:03:11] Steven Johnson:
I think given everything that is happening in the world, both geopolitically and in terms of new technologies that are proliferating around us, you may be the ideal guest to talk to, uh, given the state of the world, um, in, in terms of helping our listeners make sense of everything.
So we're just delighted to have you here. I was in the audience while you delivered the opening talk at the, at the TED Conference in Vancouver, um, which was extremely powerful, and I thought we could just start with you telling us a little bit about what you were trying to convey to the, to the TED audience on that day.
[00:03:48] Garry Kasparov:
I was invited to talk about the Ukrainian war. Um, one of the reasons is that I, um, described, uh, almost verbatim the, Putin’s invasion back in my book, Winter Is Coming, uh, in 2015. Um, and, um, I had thought it was my responsibility, also as a Russian citizen, to share compassion and, uh, my beliefs that the only outcome of this war acceptable for the free world would be Ukrainian total victory.
Uh, I think it was important for people in the audience to hear it from a Russian citizen, from a Russian, uh, chess champion, that nothing short of Ukrainian victory and liberation of Ukrainian territory, Crimea included, would, uh, be, um, acceptable solution, uh, not only for Ukraine or for East Europe, but for the, for the entire world, including Russia.
Because I, I believe, um, I convinced that liberation of Crimea from Putin forces, uh, will be the beginning of liberation from my country, Russia, from Putin's fascism. Not often in the world we live, we have such a clear distinction between good and evil. There's so many things are now in gray and, uh, and, uh, we know that good is, is never perfect, but first time in, in, in many years, in many decades, we saw pure evil. The evil that we believed, you know, was left for movies and uh, and, and books. But, as we learned, and it's a very painful lesson, uh, especially for Ukrainians who are paying in blood for, uh, for us, forgetting that evil, um, evil doesn’t die. It always comes, comes back. It bites us, you know, when we lose our vigilance and become complacent.
[00:06:03] Steven Johnson:
You mentioned Winter is Coming. Um, I, I, I just wanna read these two or three sentences, um, from that book again, published in 2015. Um, and, and, and you wrote: “Those who say the Ukraine conflict”—talking about the initial incursion into Eastern Ukraine at this point, which had happened in the year before—“Those who say the Ukraine conflict is far away and unlikely to lead to global instability miss the clear warning Putin has given us. There is no reason to believe his announced vision of a greater Russia will end with Eastern Ukraine and many reasons it will not. Dictators only stop when they are stopped, and appeasing Putin with Ukraine will only stoke his appetite for more conquest.”
So on some level, you could have just walked onto the TED stage with a big slide that just said, “I told you so.” I mean, you really, you know, this is, this is very prophetic. Um, and I guess, you know, my first question about that book and that warning was what was your sense of how it was received at the time it was published?
[00:07:08] Garry Kasparov:
Um, to be polite, I could say it was a mixed reception. Uh, there were some, you know, um, complimentary voices, but in general, it was disregarded as, as a complaint from, um, like a disgrunted immigrant and also was critical of Barack Obama, who was president at the time. And so that's why, uh, many on the liberal side, New York Times and Washington Post, they saw nothing in the book but Obama's criticism.
The fact is that I was also critical about, uh, Obama's predecessors has been ignored. I was always talking about policy and it, I didn't care whether it was a Republican or Democrat making what I believe was the wrong move. And Obama happened to be in the office, and it's happened on his watch.
And I, I always felt that, you know, that Putin explained his philosophy that could be simplified, as you know, the restoration, Russia's great power. And he repeatedly said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. And, uh, all I did, I listened to Putin's warnings, actually not warnings—him laying down his plan. Uh, it's, it's some sort of paradox that dictators always lie about what they have done, but very often they're open about their plans. They're telling us what they're going to do.
[00:08:29] Steven Johnson:
And that was one of the things I thought was most striking about the, the kind of history you tell in Winter Is Coming, which is you talk about that period, you know, after the fall of the Berlin wall, um, the kind of Yeltsin years before Putin comes to power as this kind of lost decade or this squandered decade, um, where particularly in the, in the west response to Russia during that period that it, it ends up kind of setting up the problem that, that Putin becomes. Can you, can you tell us a little bit about that history? ‘Cause I think a lot of Americans don't have that clear in their heads.
[00:09:03] Garry Kasparov:
Yes, I, I think it's, uh, it's important for us to remember this historic moment, 1991. So I'm not sure many of our listeners, you know, will remember because they're young, and, uh, many of them simply missed it, you know? But for me and for millions like myself, were born and raised on the other side of our curtain, that was the moment of celebration.
So that was the really great, great moment in, in, in, in history. But when the history, um, makes this kind of a turn, the end of the Cold War collapse of the Soviet Union and, you know, we entering the brand new world, never thought of. So, uh, how many of us who were born in the fifties, sixties, or seventies thought that we would one day, you know, wake up in a world with no Soviet Union?
And very quickly it's gone. And what's happened in 1991 or more likely, what has not happened is that we just left one period of history, like, you know, ended one chapter, closed it, and moved to, to new chapter. I mean, it's, someone has to write it. Someone has to offer a plan. And the only one country in the world could do that was the United States of America, because America was, you know, the prime, uh, winner of, of the, of the Cold War, the head of the coalition that stopped communism and then, you know, defeated it.
Uh, but while America had a plan that has been, uh, initiated by Harry S. Truman, uh, uh, administration back in 1946, starting with this famous long telegram, Kennan Telegram from Moscow, explaining why communism, you know, would be, you know, the next, next big challenge for America. And, uh, building all the institutions that he needed: National Security Council, CIA, NATO, Marshall Plan—all the elements that help America to, to stop the spread of communism and eventually defeat it, uh, in, in, in four decades.
And, uh, from one administration to another, from Democrat to Republican, back to Democrat, back to Republican. We saw consistency. People on the other side, like myself, were born in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, we knew that America was there. America was a leader of the global coalition, defending freedom against communism. And in 1991, after receiving this historical prize of a victory that I think it was quite surprising victory for Bush 41 and his, and his administration. They, they, they had no idea what to do with that.
Instead of coming up with a plan, I think this Americans—I would not call it turned inward but electing Bill Clinton was just voters didn't want to do any more foreign adventures—They just want to concentrate on, on, on domestic affairs. And this is famous slogan. It helped Clinton to win. It’s “economy is stupid.” So this definitely reflected the mood and the most popular book in1992 was Francis Fukuyama, The End of History. Yeah, that's it. History is over. We won. Done. You know, let’s, exactly. let’s get rich. You know, let's, let's start, you know, just, you know, uh, uh, doing all this, you know, the bubbles, you know, new technology and you know, America failed to come up with a vision.
Uh, but Russia, I think, was very much, you know, sort of, um, it's in limbo. I think we could go either way. Democracy was feeble and, um, it's not surprising that historic traditions prevailed. And Yeltsin, you know, was under impression that he could act more like czar by selecting his successor. And, uh, Putin was there.
It's not that he expected, you know, just to become president, but all of a sudden he was given just, uh, as a gift, uh, the greatest prize he could ever dream. And that's why, you know, by being in there on, on her own, Russia moved in, in a direction that somehow, you know, was predetermined by our history. It blewed up.
So, just… I'm, I'm not here just to, to, to, to blame others. It was our fault. We blew it up, but we still had a chance of, of not turning our country into monster it is, is now if those signs on the wall that anybody could see about Putin's intentions, again, what he could do if given the chance, if these signs were read and, and the free world responded decisively at early stage.
[00:13:37] Steven Johnson:
I have two more questions about the, the current situation. The world is changing quickly, so when people listen to this, the world may be slightly different, but one is given: How well you forecast tragically, well, you forecast Putin's, you know, eventual moves in Winter is Coming. Did you find yourself surprised by the underperformance of the Russian military in the conflict with Ukraine? Is that, was that something you would've seen coming or, or did that surprise you at all?
[00:14:09] Garry Kasparov:
I don't think, you know, you can say surprised. So, um, I, uh, probably expecting them to fare better, but I knew that Russian Army suffered from the same disease as Russian society, Russian state corruption. Uh, it's a mafia state. You know, I, um, I always say that every country has its, uh, uh, uh, own mafia, but in Russia, mafia has its own state. I was more surprised by the, by the very low, uh, quality of planning to start this war by attacking on six, or some say even nine, different directions, not having one or two priorities.
Uh, yeah, that's can be explained only by overconfidence or, you know, another problem that every dictatorship is dealing with. It goes, every general, you know, every bureaucrat wants to perform better than, than, uh, his competitor in the eyes of dictator. So that's why I think there was some sort of competition. I can do this. I can do that.
I, So we know it's the, the result was what Ukrainians consolidated. And, uh, and very quickly it became apparent to me that, uh, uh, Russian Army was not prepared for, for serious war. It was more about the Blitzkrieg and the failure to win instantly led, led, led to, um, uh, uh, organizational failures that eventually, you know, forced them to, uh, change the, the, the original goals of the operation.
[00:15:41] Steven Johnson:
Thinking about the mindset of, of a given people. The last question I wanted to ask you before we move on to other aspects of your career is what's going on in the mind of urbanites in, in Moscow and in, and St. Petersburg, who have spent the last 30 years kind of feeling on some level as if they were part of Europe, and they've been moving back and forth with the freedom that they had never had before.
Is the media so autocratic now that they can't see the problem with this intervention? Are, are they sold on Putin on some level? We saw those protests early in the, in the conflict in the streets, which was quite striking given, you know, how dangerous that can be to protest publicly in Russia right now. What, what's your sense of that? The, the internal Russian mindset, particularly in those, those cities that are really adjacent to Europe.
[00:16:36] Garry Kasparov:
The, uh, suburban population in big cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, they believed, and probably rightly so, that they, they were part of, of Europe. They were part of the, of the world. Uh, not because of democracy, but because they could move freely, they could make money and they, they, they didn't have the same barriers of traveling and, and buying goods and just, you know, or doing some work for, for Western companies. It’s… that was a fundamental difference between Putin's Russia and the Soviet Union. These people never thought, or most of them didn't think of, um, having democracy as the, uh, precondition for their success.
Because their experiences told them otherwise. They had improvements in their lives with very little democracy left in Russia. So they thought that, uh, “It could go forever, and yeah, okay. Putin could do this and, and annex Crimea, and go to Syria. Yeah. But it doesn't affect us.” And also they saw the free world giving Putin the free right.
So why should we bother? Now, undoubtedly, these people just, they, they, they’re, they're troubled. Uh, many of them left Russia. We don't know exact number, but we're talking about already about hundreds of thousands of, of these people leaving Russia, just trying to find any place where they can stay.
They're successful business people. They are just IT experts, but they, they have to run. They could feel that Putin—staying in Putin Russia—might be very dangerous because it’s, it's anti-intellectual. You know, it's, it's, it actually goes after anyone who's not loyal. It's no longer, you know, “I don't protest.”
You may not be, you may not be, uh, active, uh, protestor, but if you are not loyal enough, if you just don't shout with a crowd, so you may be subject, uh, of prosecution. You pointed out about, uh, that there were tens of thousand Russians, uh, protesting the war. 16,000 were arrested. Uh, that was in the beginning of the war, and you couldn't expect people to, to go to the streets knowing that, you know, you will be arrested, beaten, and most likely, you know, spend years in jail.
Because now saying, saying war in Russia might, you know, bring you three years in prison and, uh, telling the truth about, uh, Russian trusts in Ukraine or about Russian losses in Ukraine could, you know, um, could, uh, be punished by 15 years, uh, in, uh, in prison. Um, and I think this growing discomfort, but even those who have the access to VPN, and they could see the news coming from Ukraine, they try to disassociate themselves from the, from, uh, the cruelty of the Russian army.
Maybe it's a fake. Maybe it's, it's, it's, it's exaggeration. We don't want to hear about it. Yeah. It will be over sometime soon. If this war goes on, as we all expect, I think it's not, it's not, it will not take long for these groups of, of Russians to become really frustrated.
And then you may also expect, uh, uh, Putin's nucleus, you know, those Russians who supported the war and, and Putin, also to, uh, become impatient. Because, well, accepting the hardship of war, tolerating sanctions, might work for a while. For, for a while, you can blame Western sanctions for this hardship and rally people behind you. For a while, but not for long.
And, and, uh, if, if Russians feel that the war goes for too long, uh, economy is, is crumbling because it depends on, in many parts, depends on, on, on Western technological support. Um, and body bags keep arriving from Ukraine and the, the fortune of war is now has shifted to Ukrainian side. I think that it will not take long to see not tens of thousands of, uh, protestors.
It's, uh, peace protestors, but millions of angry Russians, uh, demanding the change, uh, of policy. And, um, it may lead to, to, to the consequences that even Putin and his, uh, uh, police machinery will not be able to handle.
[00:21:22] Steven Johnson:
I wanna talk a little bit about your… the, the kind of the arc of your career, um, because you, you have really become, over the last 20 or 30 years, what I would call a kind of a classic model of a public intellectual, who’s out there making arguments, about politics and geopolitics and, and new technology and society, um, and, you know, influencing a lot of different fields.Was there a point early in your career as a, as a chess, you know, champion, um, where you first began to visualize that second and third act of your, of your life? When, when, when did that become kind of visible to you?
[00:22:03] Garry Kasparov:
Look, when I was a young chess player prodigy, I didn’t think about second career, so all I wanted to was to become world champion, but also I received a very decent education at home. So with, uh, my mother and with my uncle. My father died when I was seven, and, uh, his younger brother also helped me to be introduced to some books that were not available and so at public libraries. Plus I could, uh, travel at early age. First time I, uh, traveled abroad to capitalist country was, it was 1976.
I was sent to France to play the world, uh, championship under, um, 16. And that was quite a shock. It's, I don't even know how to explain it to, to the, to the audience. You know, what was the trip to France for a so—for a kid from Baku? It, it was sensational. I spent one day in Paris on the way back, and it's just, it's, it's, it's phenomenal.
And instead, 1977, I had another trip to France this time, you know, in the south, in Cagnes Sur Mer. Um, and I think in my neighborhood was tens of thousands of people. I, uh, I was the only one who had this kind of experience and, uh, it didn't take long for me to just, to look around and start, you know, just, uh, comparing things, just reading books and just, you know, listening to some radios and, uh, and recognizing the, the, the shortages of food and, and, and, and basic goods in the Soviet store.
So I, uh, I could understand that it, something was wrong. And, uh, and when I became World Champion in 1985, that was already a time where Soviet Union was about to start this. It's, it's like a new pass, uh, for change. Uh, Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party, and uh, I think there was some kind of a consensus among Soviet ruling lead that the changes, some changes when needed.
And one of the reasons is the, um, introduction to new technologies. Uh, it's, we had fax machines. I remember one of my friends, you know, just, it's the early computer expert in Russia said, “Garry, you know, trust me, fax machines and these early computers, they will kill solid regime because slaves cannot build powerful personal computer.”
So, um, it's, uh, you know, um, it, it, it brought me into, uh, in, in 87, 88 into, um, nascent proto-democratic movement in Russia because I believe that it was my, my duty as, as a very prominent citizen, someone who could be immune against direct attacks of the Soviet authorities, to speak up. So those… just to express my concerns, even dissatisfaction about the system and, um, to lead others, because I was lucky.
I, I climbed the, to the top. And I could, uh, you know, say things that many others shared, but were afraid to, to, to pronounce. So it was about personal example. And, uh, from now on, going back to 87, 88, I always felt that it was my historic responsibility to lead others. If I could show by example that we could be united fighting for, for common good.
[00:26:05] Steven Johnson:
The second half of, uh, of your career so far ended up being bound up in all these really interesting ways with technology. I mean, most famously in, in the, in the two matches, um, with Deep Blue, the IBM chess computer in, in the nineties. The first one you won, I just wanna make that clear.
[00:26:23] Garry Kasparov:
Good. Thank you very much. Everybody remembers the, only the second match.
[00:26:28] Steven Johnson:
I actually, I just watched the footage of you, um, losing the second match, um, and the sequence of your face as you're kind of deciding whether to concede or not, and realizing that you're gonna have to concede it… It, it is pri—I mean, it's an incredible emotional range, uh, that you're showing on your face during that sequence.
People should look it up if they, if they haven't seen it. But I, I guess my question about that period is, you know, what was…what was the feeling like intellectually and emotionally at the time, and how has it changed looking back on it now, 25 years later?
[00:27:03] Garry Kasparov:
Um, speaking about my emotions and my reaction, uh, I would even say outburst. Yeah. Uh, on May 11th, 1997, after losing to Deep Blue. Yeah, I could, as in, you know, as the defensive, uh, argument, I could say that it was not my first match I lost against the machine. It was the first match I lost, period. So I was a world champion for 12 years. I was virtually unbeatable. Yeah, I lose games, but never lost a match.
And, uh, and considering the match was painful. I mean, uh, I can describe, you know, this, these, these feelings and it's this, this frustration, anger, pain. And this is, it's, that's, it’s… somehow I'm sad, but, but 25 years later, 25 years later, I believe that this moment was not a curse, but rather blessing, because I was the first one to experience this challenge.
I was the first knowledge worker who had his job threatened by a computer. So that's why it's the, somehow indirectly, I acquired authority to speak on behalf of humans, uh, who are scared of losing jobs to, to machines. So it's not that I make a callous statement, “Oh, you lose the job, I lost myself.”
So that's, I have some moral argument, just it's the moral authority to, to, to, to present our future, you know, uh, in the world where machines can do more and more of intelligent work. It's, it was really historical moment. And I know many famous scientists in young—of younger generation, they talked about this moment as the, as the, like, you know, it’s, uh, eureka! So that's, that's, that's a moment for us to, to do something.
So it's, it brought so much talent into—not just for IBM, but for computer science in general. Today, if you have Chess app on your mobile device, it's as good or even better than Deep Blue. And, and, uh, the chess engines you can download on your laptop. They're just far, far, far better. So, uh, it was not, you know, perfect machine.
It's the, the reason I lost the match is because I made more mistakes. And, uh, Deep Blue was not intelligent in terms of intelligence we understand. It’s, you know, it's, it didn't have to be, It's all about making few mistakes. It's about actually having, uh, sort of a better performance because, you know, it doesn't blunder and it just, you know, it, it could actually benefit from typical human mistakes.
That's what we should expect from any computer now or from driverless cars, you know. It’s the, our expectations that machines must be perfect or they're no good, they're just wrong. So, um, uh, I also learned, you know, that's the, it's from these matches that it was time for us to actually call it off. It's no longer about competing, it's about working together.
You cannot beat them, join them. So that, that became my, you know, my principle, and I came up with ideas of doing what I call advanced chess: humans plus machine, playing other humans plus machine and how we can find most effective ways of cooperating, of, um, of collaboration of humans and machines. And, uh, and this work, uh, I'd been very successful on, in chess field and, uh, uh, some of the results, you know, have been, um, successfully, um, tested in, in other errors in finance or in medicine.
So that's why again, you know, game of chess and myself included, you know, made a good contribution to the, uh, general good of humanity.
[00:30:52] Steven Johnson:
I think that's one of the things that's very powerful about the argument in deep thinking, which is this idea that it is not, um, we're not necessarily in a competitive race with the technology. That, that we can use this technology to augment our own intelligence and, and collaborate and, and, and create potentially, I mean the, the creative potential of some of these tools is amazing.
One thing that I think it's useful just to explain to our listeners, um, right around when Deep thinking came out, uh, the, the Google subsidiary, uh, Deep Mind released a series of papers announcing these, these breakthroughs with their Alpha Zero, uh, AI, uh, including becoming kind of the most powerful chess player in, in the world.
And I think a lot of people who weren't following this closely were like, “Well, wait a second. Deep Blue already did this. You know, in the mid-nineties. Why is this an achievement?” And, and the achievement is really that they did it in a completely different way. Um, that, that I think is worth explaining. Can you just walk us through the difference between Deep Blue and Alpha Zero?
[00:31:51] Garry Kasparov:
Look, as I said already, you know, Deep Blue, uh, was strong, but it's, it's, um, it was far from being perfect. So, uh, um, at the time where I played Deep Blue, it, um, it was still inferior to my, I think myself and, and two other top players.
Uh, again, I lost the match, but it's just, you know, it's, uh, it was not the end of the competition because you could clearly see the mistakes Deep Blue made. Mistakes were made from both side, side. So, um, um, that's why, again, what's happened there, it was approved that machine could beat human by simply operating on, you know, on uh, on, on combination of brute force and acquired human knowledge.
Now, Alpha Zero is built on a very different principle. It's the idea of Alpha Zero, whether it's chess, Go, Dota, so just any game. And now they do similar things with protein, woth science. It’s the, it's that you give this algorithm a set of rules, like the game of chess. Rules, that’s it. And then it begins playing against itself. Thousand games. Tens of thousand games. Hundreds of thousand games. Millions of games. Tens of millions of games.
And it built its own, call it library. It's the, um, system of patterns, um, uh, concepts. So in this positions, it works, in this position doesn't work. Again, you compare and that's, you build a pattern.
The difference that this program had, zero knowledge, uh, except the rules. Um, uh, and then it's, it, it, it w it, it played against some of the strongest chess engines, by the way, much stronger than Deep Blue. Um, this computer still has certain problems and, uh, and the whole algorithm based on the fact that it still requires a human design framework to work with.
It doesn’t operate, you know, just out of nothing. So we need, like, a box. The problem is that if you have machine designing its own system of patterns within this box and then you want this information to transfer to another system is you have to, you have to intervene. It just doesn't happen automatically.
So even if you have a similar characters in the video game playing on different maps, you still have to start from the scratch. So for a machine to actually learn how to do this on this, on this new map, so even minor changes require, you know, a machine’s immense power, just it's the, an energy to go over and just to build its, its own, um, uh, system of patterns and understand how to play in this, you know, specific conditions.
While humans could do it very quickly. I mean, I could see “Oh, that’s, those are similar patterns. I can just move them here.” And that's why I remain optimistic about human's role in human-machine collaboration. So what? It’s all about, you know, finding the best algorithm of our collaboration, making sure that our creativity and our intuition could be very valuable for machines’ brute force.
[00:35:16] Steven Johnson:
You have a great observation on deep thinking where you talk about this, this other famous match that you played against something like 20 computers in the, in the late eighties I think it was, where you were simultaneously playing all—
[00:35:29] Garry Kasparov:
32 computers. Yeah. There was not anymore.
[00:35:32] Steven Johnson:
32 computers. Yeah. Yeah. And you're going around and playing against these computers, and you beat them all. And you point out that to, you know, today, uh, you know, a computer could beat 32 humans easily, but what it, what it couldn't do is walk around the room and, and physically move the pieces. And, and that's a classic kind of challenge, conceptually, it's hard for us to understand. So, so you mentioned being optimistic, and I, and I think this is a great place to, to end. So you and I first met four or five years ago at a, at a conference somewhere where we both speaking.
[00:36:02] Garry Kasparov:
It was, it was, it was, as we say now, it's. It's year 2 or 3 BC, yes? Before covid. Before covid.
[00:36:08] Steven Johnson:
Yes, exactly. Back when people would meet at a conference and, and we were both speaking there. You were the headliner. I was just a minor act on the billing, but, but I, I'd given a talk about long-term thinking that mentioned a little bit about how we use science fiction to kind of imagine future scenarios as a society. And, and you came up afterwards and you asked me a really great question, which was, “Why is so much science fiction dystopian? Why don't we have more, you know, optimistic visions of the future?”
And, and we got into this interesting conversation. I think we both have a kind of an optimistic bent in some ways, in that we were talking about how it's useful as a society to imagine positive outcomes in the future so you can think about how to steer towards 'em for, for a lot of different reasons.
And I, and I guess I just, here we are four years later, and since then, as you said, we have had a global pandemic. We have, you know, a land war in Europe's largest country. We've had an attempted coup, arguably in the United States. Has this been a challenging stretch since I last saw you in terms of maintaining that optimism about the future? Or do you still have reserves of it?
[00:37:09] Garry Kasparov:
No, I'm still remaining an optimist because yes, there are challenges, but I think we need these challenges. Going back to what I said about, you know, our mood in 1991, celebrating and losing our vigilance, turning, complacent, trying to manage risk, you know, to eliminate risks.
So just, you know, everything is for granted. I think we needed this kind of wake-up calls. Yes, they're dangerous. Yes, they, if they, god forbid, succeed, you know, we'll be living in a different world. But that's, that's the only way to mobilize us. So we now recognize that even in the United States, democracy is something to fight for.
And, uh, Ukrainians are paying huge price in blood for our unwillingness to recognize, uh, Putin's threat on time. But the outcome of, of these challenges to, to, to our way of life, uh, uh, challenges to the world order that is based on human rights, on democracy, on market economy, um, uh, the outcome is that we, we have to get stronger.
It's, it doesn't kill us. It makes us stronger. And I think, you know, uh, Ukrainian war, as many wars in the past, it's not just a wake-up call. It's the, it's, it forces us into action. We have to reconsider, uh, many things that we had to deal with 30 years ago. Learning from, from the, from our mistakes and recognizing that inaction is also action.
And you know, if we try to delay action, we pay the high price. Again, you cannot rely on the, the accomplishments of our predecessors. It’s… you cannot rest on the laurels. Even if you born and raised in a free country, it's a privilege of being born and raised in a free country. You still have to be active. I think that's this activism, that's, that's what is needed.
You know, just it's, and we all can make a hell of a difference because we have so much power in our hands. So just to, you talked about pandemics. Yeah, horrible. I mean, it's the, for me, it was the biggest personal loss ever. I lost my mother to COVID on Christmas Day, 2020, and she was in Moscow. Uh, she couldn't, uh, she couldn't say anything to me.
She died there and, uh, all she wanted is just, you know, for me to be next to her when this tragic moment happens. And okay. It's horrible loss. But now I look at, you know, uh, from, from the global perspectives, it was another proof that the free world has a much better answer to any crisis because this virus, I mean, irrespective, you know, of what's origin—lab, nature—came from China and the vaccine came from the United States of America.
China is still struggling with, with, with the virus. While we are gradually returning, yes, we still have problems, but gradually returning to normal life, uh, you know, there's nothing like lockdowns of, of Shanghai cities of 25, 25 million people. So, uh, we should be optimistic, but you know, but vigilant, so it's, this is, I think we are now probably, probably now, uh, having the right, right balance of optimism and, and vigilance and, uh, risk-taking appetite, recognizing that nothing happens without us sacrificing something.
[00:40:36] Steven Johnson:
Garry Kasparov, we appreciate your, your foresight and the inspiration and for you taking this time to talk to us today. Uh, it's been a real pleasure.
[00:40:43] Garry Kasparov:
Thank you for giving me this opportunity.
[00:40:51] Steven Johnson:
That's it for the show today. The TED interview is part of the TED Audio Collective. This episode was produced by Dan O'Donnell and Wilson Sayre, our managing producer. The show is brought to you by TED and Transmitter Media. Sammy Case is our story editor. Fact-Checking by Meerie Jesuthasan. Farrah Desgranges is our project manager, and Gretta Cohn is our executive producer.
Special thanks to Michelle Quint and Anna Phelan. I'm your host, Steven Johnson. To keep up with my other projects, including my latest book, Extra Life, newly out in paperback. You can follow me on Twitter at @stevenbjohnson or sign up for my Substack newsletter Adjacent Possible.