Maths: the secret to the game of life

Checkmate: A grandmaster aged 14, Magnus Carlsen has been chess world champion since 2011. © Getty

Are there any problems maths can’t solve? It is the secret of success in chess and fantasy football; it is why computers are making more of our decisions. But is life only a numbers game?

“I’ve just been lucky,” says Magnus Carlsen.

He’s not talking about his winning streak of 107 chess games, but his top ranking in the Fantasy Premier League ahead of seven million other players.

The young grandmaster says that “one-part stats and one-part gut feeling” helped him climb the rankings. Carlsen has incredible maths skills and an encyclopaedic memory of chess moves, openings and strategy. He also knows a lot about the Premier League.

In both contests, Carlsen’s brilliant mind learned algorithms to identify patterns, solve problems and make decisions. No wonder people say chess and football teach you about life.

But what can crunch data faster and better than Magnus Carlsen? Computers.

In fact, chess was an early test case for AI. In the 1980s, the then world champion Gary Kasparov said he would never be defeated by a computer. He was wrong. In 1996, the computer Deep Blue beat him at his own game.

Nowadays, chess is too easy for computers. The most advanced AI would thrash Magnus Carlsen in every game. Computers have moved on to bigger and more difficult tasks. They can drive cars, diagnose diseases and recognise faces.

And choose your future partner? Yes, they can do that too. Online dating sites and internet giants like Google and Facebook rely on immense amounts of big data to see patterns in our behaviour, and predict what we want — before we know we want it.

Magnus Carlsen can’t do that. As far as we know. But are there things ordinary humans can do that we can’t or shouldn’t leave to computers?

“The real danger today,” warns Economics Professor Gary Smith, “is not that computers are smarter than us, but that we think computers are smarter than us.”

Carlsen’s “gut feeling” in fantasy football is what some call intuition. Based on practical experience, it allows us to discount the data when things “just don’t feel right”. Mathematician Hannah Fry warns that not knowing the limits of AI can get us into serious trouble.

The 2008 financial crisis and Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign were both blamed on blindly following computer-based decisions.

But does that mean there are problems maths can’t solve?

A game of two halves

There’s no limit, say some. By 2050, experts think AI will be able to perform any intellectual task done by humans. It can already do many jobs with much greater precision and accuracy. But it is only as good as the data we give it. So, if it makes mistakes, don’t blame the machine. And because we will understand the maths of life, we will have more control and understanding, not less.

Not so fast, warn others. We have introduced algorithms to decide whether to release people from jail, decide who is given healthcare and to select military targets. Not only should we be worried about AI making life-changing decisions such as these, but human error and bias are built into the data that AI uses. Algorithms can help us make decisions, but humans must always have the last say.

You Decide

  1. Are there any problems that maths cannot solve?
  2. Will we ever trust computers to make all our decisions?


  1. “Maths is the most important subject taught in schools.” In groups, discuss the arguments for and against this statement.
  2. It’s the game of the century: humans vs. computers! Create your fantasy team of geniuses, inventors and other amazing people from history to take on the best computers in a battle of minds. Explain your choices. (Does Magnus Carlsen make the squad?)

Some People Say...

“Chess is life in miniature.”

Gary Kasparov, Russian former world chess champion, writer and political activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
After the first move in a game of chess, there are 400 possible ways the game can go. After the second move, 200,000. After the third move, 121 million! A world-class chess player will have memorised thousands of games, and they will use this knowledge to decide on their next move. In a similar way, studies show we make as many as 35,000 decisions a day. And like a chess player, we use our experience and memory, patterns and rules we have learned, to make decisions.
What do we not know?
AI begins to struggle when it comes to decisions that involve ethical dilemmas, creativity, emotionally charged situations and humour. Computers are terrible at telling jokes. What we don’t know is whether this is because they don’t have enough data or whether it is something that will always be outside of the field of maths and computer algorithms. Do such things as wisdom and human intuition really exist, or will computers one day be able to do everything we can do, faster and better?

Word Watch

Fantasy Premier League
Players assemble an imaginary team of footballers and score points based on their footballers’ performances during the Premier League season. In 2018, the AI Squadguru came 112th.
The highest title awarded to chess players, apart from world champion. Once achieved, players retain it for life.
A set of rules to solve problems or make decisions. All computer language is based on algorithms, but whether we are aware of them or not, we have our own rules and processes for making decisions.
Artificial Intelligence.
Big data
Huge amounts of information, usually about people’s behaviour, that require high-powered computers to analyse.
2008 financial crisis
Many financial decisions were made automatically by computers following complex algorithms.
2016 presidential campaign
Hilary Clinton’s team used AI to decide where to campaign and which votes to chase.

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