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My computer crushes me at chess

February 18, 2010

Harvard Business Blogs just ran an Andrew McAfee piece on Garry Kasparov reflecting on his match against Deep Blue 1997.  It was the most widely-covered chess match since Spassky-Fischer in 1972, and it was only natural to play up the man vs. machine narrative.  Time Magazine ran a cover story “The Brain’s Last Stand,” and promotional posters around New York used the tagline, “How do you make a computer blink?”  As a story, man vs. machine sells, because computers and robots are terrifying.  We’re the country who brought you The Terminator franchise and The Matrix.  Computers are smarter than us, and they’re taking our jobs.  It’s only a matter of time before they rise up and overthrow us, right?

2001 Pepsi commercial (Kasparov vs. the machines):

In all the hysteria, the man plus machine angle often gets lost in the discussion.  Humans and computers compliment each other well because each covers for the other’s most glaring weakness.  Humans are prone to errors and inconsistency; computers lack intuition and the ability to reason.  This is why a computer working in conjunction with a human, whether its playing chess or executing a business process, is almost always stronger than either a human or a computer working independently.  Kasparov noted that in chess competitions allowing combinations of humans and computers, “The teams of human plus machine dominate even the strongest computers. The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.”

Kasparov retired from chess in 2005 to work as a writer and as a political activist.  After famously accusing IBM of cheating and storming off after the final game, he seems to be over the Deep Blue match: “It was my luck (perhaps my bad luck) to be the world chess champion during the critical years in which computers challenged, then surpassed, human chess players. Before 1994 and after 2004 these duels held little interest. The computers quickly went from too weak to too strong.”

Anytime you teach someone a game, you’re supposed to dominate for a while.  When the pupil turns around and starts beating the teacher, it’s a little disconcerting at first.  Then you get over it.  The first computer chess program I played was Sargon on our family’s Apple IIC.  Sargon’s graphics weren’t as cutting edge as The Oregon Trail or the Carmen Sandiego franchise, and it had a few quirks like always positioning the black pieces at the top of the screen regardless of what color you were.  It was a nice confidence builder for a 6-year-old, though.  It never varied its move sequence, so I learned how to win its queen on the 8th move of every game.  These days I’m no match for the basic Chess program on my iMac.  Times change.  Computers may be smarter than us, but at least we taught them everything they know.  If they rise up against us, we can always pull the plug or throw water on them.

Update: HBB followed up with a link to Kasparov’s review of Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind published last week in the New York Review of Books.

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