AI Centaurs

Feature Story

As artificial intelligence outstrips human intelligence, AIs can now beat humans at any game. A pessimist might claim that this marks the end of the line for play. But a mythical beast has come to save playtime from the robots.

Centaurs are creatures from ancient Greek myth. They have the body of a horse, but the head and torso of a man. They are depicted as sometimes wild and lustful, and sometimes wise beyond imagining; animal strength with human intelligence. But a 21st century centaur is a vision of the future for humanity. A humanity that uses augmented intelligence to take play into a new dimension.

The concept of an AI centaur initially grew out of computer chess, but is now ready to be applied throughout many other fields. Imagine Formula 1 racing drivers who are able to calculate the perfect racing line in real time using machine intelligence. Or an AI that can predict the spin on a tennis ball, advise you on where to move on the court and help you beat the best players in the world. The technology to achieve this, and more, already exists.

How did the sedate world of chess give birth to this radical vision of the future? Chess is almost infinitely complex, there are 10120 possible outcomes for a chess game, more than there are fundamental particles in the observable universe. This has made it a classic test for AI, which has become better at spotting its opponent’s mistakes and anticipating its opponent’s plans than any human ever could. The most complex games ever conceived have effectively been ‘solved’. Computers can play ‘perfect’ games and never be beaten. All of which would seem to herald the end of play. But AI centaurs set a new standard for play.

Centaur games are played by teams consisting of one human and one AI. This has the capacity to take play to levels of previously unthinkable skill. Games become elegant battles of perfect tactics and strategy, while audiences are given an insight into the players’ thought processes by being given access to projections of the players’ computer screens.

The centaur model can be applied to any game or sport, the human half of the centaur team concentrates on strategy, while the AI aids with advanced planning and helps avoid blunders. And the human/AI pairs are truly a team. Not only is the human’s ability enhanced by the machine, the human’s strategizing has been shown to get better results than when computers are allowed to play solo. In fact, for all their incredible abilities, the AIs are the junior partners in a successful centaur team. The Russian chess grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik has said; “People tend to overestimate the importance of the computer... You can do a lot of things with the computer but you still have to play a good game…”

So the dystopian future where humans are ruled by AI overlords is on hold for now. The beauty of play between centaurs is that the most skilful, fittest player and the most mentally nimble strategist will always win. Marathon runners can use monitoring tech to track their metabolic rate while an AI helps them pace their race for a win; round the world yacht racers can use AI’s advanced understanding of meteorology to catch the wind; surfers can use AI’s knowledge of fluid dynamics to catch the perfect wave. The options have no end. AI centaurs have the potential to be more than just performance enhancing toys. The concept is an invitation to design new uses for AI, to augment human intelligence and enhance human capabilities. The possibilities are as unlimited as our imaginations.