In the grand scheme of things, losing by one game in a six-game match might not seem much, but at the time it was seen as a major milestone in the long march towards “artificial” intelligence (AI). With the 20/20 vision of hindsight we can view it in a less apocalyptic light: the triumph of Deep Blue was really a victory of brute computing power, clever programming and the ruthless determination of a huge but struggling corporation to exploit the PR advantages of having one of its products do something that would impress the world’s media. But if you believe that AI has something to do with cognition, then Kasparov’s epochal defeat looks like a sideshow.
That it retains its fascination owes more to the popular view of proficiency at chess as a proxy for superintelligence rather than as possession of a very specialised skill. We’ve known for centuries that machines are much better at some things than we are. That’s why Google has become a memory prosthesis for humanity and why we use power drills to anchor bookshelves to walls. So the fact that machines now play better chess than even the greatest grandmasters or that DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeated the world Go champion at his particular speciality is interesting – and might even be useful in other areas, such as pattern-matching. But it’s just an incremental step on the same path that Deep Blue trod: the IBM machine used brute-force search; AlphaGo combined even more powerful brute-force search with a couple of neural networks. It’s technically sweet, certainly, but of less than cosmic significance.