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Opinion

Chess, AI and Asia's future

Game offers lessons for region's technological and economic development

Asia will likely produce more top chess players like Ding Liren, China's grand master.   © picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Global chess enthusiasts are sitting enthralled this week as the sport's latest World Championships head toward a tense finale in London. $600,000 in prize money awaits the victor of the 12-game clash between Magnus Carlsen, Norwegian wunderkind and current titleholder, and his younger challenger Fabiano Caruana, a combative U.S.-born grandmaster of Italian descent.

Yet while this long-anticipated contest is being fought out between an American and a European, rapid developments in modern chess hold intriguing lessons -- technologically, geographically and institutionally -- for the future of Asia too.

For starters, chess is a corrective to those who fret that new technologies, and in particular artificial intelligence, will render human beings redundant. Basic smartphone apps can now easily beat Carlsen, Caruana or indeed any flesh-and-blood player. Despite this, interest in the game is thriving.

There was much talk was of AI when I visited the start of the championships, mostly because chess has recently become a crucial testing ground for new machine learning technologies. Google's DeepMind division pulled off a coup last year when its AlphaZero program learned the rules in a few hours, and then triumphed against Stockfish, until then the world's best chess computer.

This intersection of chess and technology has rekindled interest, both in industries looking to capitalize on AI, like banking, as well as in AI-obsessed nations like China. "When I tell someone in finance that I'm a chess expert their eyes light up," I was told by grandmaster Daniel King, a well-known commentator on YouTube. "They are just so fascinated by AI. All they see is dollar signs."

AI engines play in adventurous new styles: neither like normal computers nor humans, but instead in what DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis calls "a third, almost alien, way." By this he means the machines often play improbable moves that look peculiar to human eyes but turn out to be brilliant.

Oddly, this kind of machine skill has only increased interest in human competition. Chess computers help humans improve. They make the game more entertaining for analysts and spectators too. Former champion Garry Kasparov has even pioneered "cyborg chess," a variant where a human and a computer work in tandem, playing against other man-and-machine teams. Typically, the result is better than either might manage on their own.

It is just this marriage of computers and people that holds wider economic lessons, given future productivity will grow most quickly where humans and machines collaborate. This could be physical "co-bots" supporting workers in factories or retail outlets. But it could also involve advanced algorithms providing unbiased data to improve human decision-making, or machines which takeover routine tasks to let humans focus on those involving advanced judgment.

Skills of this kind should bring advantages to Asia, with its youthful population and tech-savvy employees. Emerging economies seeking to attract white collar work from advanced economies should also benefit, given many jobs in areas like professional services and design can now be off-shored to countries that combine cutting-edge technologies with an adaptable workforce.

In chess, as in economic activity, the center of gravity is moving east, thanks to technology. Until recently few good players emerged outside the sport's traditional bastions in Russia, Europe and the U.S. To the extent it was played elsewhere, it was the product of Soviet-era globalization, pushed via networks of cultural centers in countries like India and China

Now, however, a combination of chess computers and the internet makes it easier to play at a high level pretty much anywhere. Good players often pop up in unexpected locations. Asia's rising middle class is playing a role too: middle class parents often push their kids to learn the sport in other countries, but Asia's famously assertive parents are likely to be especially keen.

All this is helping to fuel the game's Asian rise. Both India and China have added dozens of top-ranked players over recent years. India already has one world champion in Vishwanathan Anand, who twice held the title, and remains a top-10 player. China recently won the Chess Olympiad, the world national team competition, and its players dominate the women's game.

In chess, as in business, geography still matters. What experts call "over the board" experience is vital for aspirant grandmasters. Most top events remain in Europe or the U.S. Russia still produces more elite players than anyone else, because of its chess-loving culture and extensive funding.

Yet this only underlines another lesson chess holds for Asia -- namely that in sport, as in other domains of economic life, rapid progress requires world class governance, support structures, and money.

FIDE, the global chess governing body, remains dominated by Russia and its allies, and is renowned for its poisonous politics. In Asia, meanwhile, chess is typically an amateurishly-run affair.

Whoever wins this match in London, many chess enthusiasts hope the next championships will pit either Carlsen or Caruana against a Chinese grandmaster. An obvious candidate is 26-year-old Ding Liren, the world's fourth best, who recently enjoyed an unprecedented 100-game undefeated streak. Few things would build interest in China more than its top player taking on the world's best.

Yet even this prospect would not be enough for the sport to achieve its potential in Asia. Consistent success at the highest level will need superior professional organization, better training programs, more tournaments and extra finance. Growing interest in chess must be translated into top-level commercial sponsorship too. In chess, as in economic development, there is no escaping the need for good institutions. It is hard to get to checkmate without a solid opening.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of "The Billionaire Raj."

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