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Did you hear about the cyborg 'hottie'?

Did you hear about the cyborg 'hottie'?

Turns out he is the best chess player in the world.

(Image by Fred Jonny via CNN Money)


This morning (Sunday) I was invited on to the BBC World Service (from c37mins) to talk about the World Chess Championship match (currently underway in Chennai, India, and tied at 1-1 after two fairly cagey draws) and the second question was about the challenger being 'a hottie' (not my term!).

You may have seen Norway's Magnus Carlsen advertising for G-Star Raw on London busses, or heard about him in the national news. As well as being world number one chess player, he has that combination of height, youth, muscle definition and masculine moodiness that the cameras seem to love (and for which he was voted one of the sexiest men of 2013 by Cosmopolitan magazine...). **

And he's not just any old 'hottie'. At 22, he is by far the highest rated chess player in the world, but has minimal match experience and is currently competing for the World Championship title against Viswanathan Anand ('Vishy') who excels in match play, and has survived numerous challenges to his throne.

In most chess training camps for top players you would expect to find lots of powerful laptops but few if any chessboards. 


Thankfully, I was also asked about the shifting role of computers in chess, and took the chance to link with my broader Social Brain perspective and suggest that most top Grandmasters are now like cyborgs.

The point is not so much that computer supremacy has stopped people playing or enjoying chess, but that they have significantly changed our approach to the game. For instance, chess analysis engines ('computers') are now so easy to use and so much stronger than human players in most positions that cheating has become a big challenge (e.g. any half-decent player can figure our the best move in their game with the help of a smartphone in a toilet cubicle, or some other private place).

Moreover, chess preparation now takes place at the human-machine interface. I have experience of World Championship opening preparation, and can assure you that human Grandmasters are very much used to bring out the best in the computers, rather than the other way round. Indeed, in most chess training camps for top players you would expect to find lots of powerful laptops but few if any chessboards.

In this sense, top Grandmasters like Magnus are like Cybernetic organisms in that their chess ability if a fusion of human and computer qualities. Some might say Magnus is a relatively analogue creature, famous for 'just playing', but he would never have become so good so quickly without computers collating, organising and analysing information that took much longer for previous generations to assimilate, and through accessing worthy opponents to practice with on the internet, that would otherwise be a flight or two away.

Chess Grandmasters remain human, but we are beginning to look at positions with 'computer eyes', and see our own limitations more clearly. For instance, while we are playing we often sense that the best move - the one the computers would choose- is different from the one we choose to play(usually because it is so counter-intuitive) and the very fact we acknowledge this schism between objective best and human best indicates the computers are 'getting in to our heads'.

World Champion Viswanathan Anand, via

The extended mind

This point is by no means limited to chess. Much of our memory is now in our smartphones or inboxes; much of our creativity is now a function of cleverly using search engines and the copy and paste function, and so on. Does it matter as much as it used to that we learn to spell accurately or do arithmetic accurately? Purists would say so- we need such knowledge to build other forms of knowledge in our heads, but others would say why bother so much, when handheld computers can do it for you?

Chess Grandmasters remain human, but we are beginning to look at positions with 'computer eyes'.

This point about the extended mind is not just about technological developments and has a deep ontological basis. Where does the mind stop and the world begin? Is your mind in your head? What about your glasses, your pens, your tools of various kinds- are they not also in some sense part of your mind? If somebody steals your smart phone, is part of your mind not also taken away?

Highly respected philosophers, David Chalmers and Andy Clark have written about The Extended Mind in this way, and it's an important perspective for our general reappraisal of human nature. Although the analogy is clearly an exaggeration for effect, some have even compared the impact of one's hard drive crashing to having a mild stroke, in the sense that both significantly debilitate our cognitive functions.

some have even compared the impact of one's hard drive crashing to having a mild stroke

There is a huge debate about what exactly constitutes a bona fide cyborg with some suggesting there has to be constant two-way feedback between organism and machines. However, I am at ease with the more modest claim that since we all function with minds that are extended through the tools we use, and since those tools increasingly shape how we think and act, we are all gradually becoming more cyborg-like.

Alas, the Magnus Carlsen phenomenon indicates that although we may all be cyborgs, we can't all be hotties as well.

The World Chess Championship match takes place from Nov 9th-Nov 28th in Chennai, India. Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA, a chess Grandmaster and former British Chess Champion (2004-6). You can follow him @Jonathan_Rowson


(**I am proud to say that Magnus has read at least one of my books and I played him at the Scotland-Norway match at the Dresden Olympiad back in 2008. He was only 17 then, but already part of the world's elite. I played well, but too slowly, and as time pressure took hold I could sense him turning into a predator, ready to pounce, which he did in great style. There's a short Youtube video of us analysing our game together.)


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