The King of Computers


There’s been a frenzy of discussion following the defeat of World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov by a machine, namely a purpose-built IBM Chess computer named “Deep Blue”. Kasparov defeated an earlier incarnation of Deep Blue last year, but the programmers and strategists who provide the logic and the cunning for the project have been busy; and new technology virtually doubled the machine’s processing ability.

Spectators followed the rematch in huge numbers, both in the auditorium and on the Internet, incredulous as the match seesawed: a win to Kasparov, a win to Deep Blue, then three drawn games, and the decisive sixth match giving machine victory over man. But does it actually mean anything?

First, understand that this was always going to happen. Mankind built bicycles and motor vehicles that could outrun him; boats that carry him over oceans fast than he can swim; calculators that add faster than he can. It was only a matter of time before the sheer computational ability of a machine was able to calculate more possible outcomes of a chess match than its human counterpart – after all, computers mastered Checkers (Draughts) on the same board some years ago.Secondly, understand that Kasparov was not walloped; of the three games that generated a result, the stronger suit – the white pieces – won each time.

It’s widely acknowledged that Kasparov made a very human error of judgement in conceding the second game, and a basic error in the deciding game which his electronic foe seized upon. This, on top of a last-gasp escape by Deep Blue in the fifth game described as “miraculous” by observers. It was victory to the computer by the narrowest of margins.

Deep Blue is not sentient; it is not aware of what it is or does. It is an unfeeling, relentless, blindingly fast chess automaton. All it can do is play chess, and this model even needs a human to move the pieces and input the opponent’s moves. But it doesn’t feel pity, or get tired; it does not wander or deviate from its strategy of planning ahead and seeing every possible move. It does not offer a draw to the opposition when one is not warranted; it does not make mistakes – your single false move guarantees defeat.Deep Blue felt no joy at becoming the first entity to defeat Garry Kasparov in match play.

Chess computers can be beaten. With the basic style of play being one of acquisition, the simple strategy of preserving a positional advantage whilst exchanging pieces is generally adequate to beat the retail models at lower levels. Their mechanical nature and lack of conversation skills means beating a chess computer seldom gives the same reward one feels in defeating a human opponent.

But Deep Blue is different; the sheer scale of processing power involved puts it a full order of magnitude ahead of the other electronic “grand masters”, and the sophistication inculcated by its tutors gave it a devastating endgame. Kasparov claimed that Deep Blue “was engineered to beat me only”, which is a strange sort of point for him to make: if you’ve been world champion and unbeaten for fourteen years in match play, that strategy makes a certain sort of sense. It does, however, invite the thought that other chess professionals may have more success by not playing as Kasparov would.

It will be interesting to see if Deep Blue’s creators respond to the gauntlet thrown down by Szusa Polgar, the elder of three Hungarian chess playing sisters. A result in favour of humanity might provide ammunition for my argument – that, in his attempts to be as un-Kasparov like as possible to frustrate the machine, Kasparov may well have beaten himself. And the future history of chess championships will probably show that although Kasparov was the first human champion to be defeated by the King of Computers, he was, paradoxically, the last human to conquer one.

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    Volume 57, Number 2 ยท February 11, 2010
    The Chess Master and the Computer
    By Garry Kasparov
    Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind
    by Diego Rasskin-Gutman, translated from the Spanish by Deborah Klosky

    MIT Press, 205 pp., $24.95

    In 1985, in Hamburg, I played against thirty-two different chess computers at the same time in what is known as a simultaneous exhibition. I walked from one machine to the next, making my moves over a period of more than five hours. The four leading chess computer manufacturers had sent their top models, including eight named after me from the electronics firm Saitek.

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