February 16, 2010

Man, the Mind, and the Machine

I have a spectators appreciation of the game of chess. Dad played it, and was really quite good, and tried to draw us into his love of the game. While I could never think ahead the way he could, and got discouraged that I didn't understand. Still, because I didn't understand, it always held a certain mystique for me. And wonderful films like Searching for Bobby Fischer helped me maintain that love and interest.

So, I was very glad to come across this wonderful article by the chess master who at one point in his life defeated 32 chess playing computers simultaneously. Later (more notably) he was defeated by a rematch against the IBM computer Deep Blue (in 1997).

Lucid and thoughtful, this article is excellent for anyone interested in chess, games, computers, and, most notably, the working of the mind:
It was an impressive achievement, of course, and a human achievement by the members of the IBM team, but Deep Blue was only intelligent the way your programmable alarm clock is intelligent. Not that losing to a $10 million alarm clock made me feel any better.

My hopes for a return match with Deep Blue were dashed, unfortunately. IBM had the publicity it wanted and quickly shut down the project. Other chess computing projects around the world also lost their sponsorship. Though I would have liked my chances in a rematch in 1998 if I were better prepared, it was clear then that computer superiority over humans in chess had always been just a matter of time. Today, for $50 you can buy a home PC program that will crush most grandmasters. In 2003, I played serious matches against two of these programs running on commercially available multiprocessor servers—and, of course, I was playing just one game at a time—and in both cases the score ended in a tie with a win apiece and several draws.

Inevitable or not, no one understood all the ramifications of having a super-grandmaster on your laptop, especially what this would mean for professional chess. There were many doomsday scenarios about people losing interest in chess with the rise of the machines, especially after my loss to Deep Blue. Some replied to this with variations on the theme of how we still hold footraces despite cars and bicycles going much faster, a spurious analogy since cars do not help humans run faster while chess computers undoubtedly have an effect on the quality of human chess.

And later:
The moment I became the youngest world chess champion in history at the age of twenty-two in 1985, I began receiving endless questions about the secret of my success and the nature of my talent. Instead of asking about Sicilian Defenses, journalists wanted to know about my diet, my personal life, how many moves ahead I saw, and how many games I held in my memory.
The only real answer, "It depends on the position and how much time I have," is unsatisfying. In what may have been my best tournament game at the 1999 Hoogovens tournament in the Netherlands, I visualized the winning position a full fifteen moves ahead—an unusual feat. I sacrificed a great deal of material for an attack, burning my bridges; if my calculations were faulty I would be dead lost. Although my intuition was correct and my opponent, Topalov again, failed to find the best defense under pressure, subsequent analysis showed that despite my Herculean effort I had missed a shorter route to victory. Capablanca's sarcasm aside, correctly evaluating a small handful of moves is far more important in human chess, and human decision-making in general, than the systematically deeper and deeper search for better moves—the number of moves "seen ahead"—that computers rely on.

Read the whole piece here.

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