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In the popular imagination, chess isn’t like a spelling bee or Trivial Pursuit, a competition to see who can hold the most facts in memory and consult them quickly. In chess, as in the arts and sciences, there is plenty of room for beauty, subtlety, and deep originality. Chess requires brilliant thinking, supposedly the one feat that would be–forever–beyond the reach of any computer. But for a decade, human beings have had to live with the fact that one of our species’ most celebrated intellectual summits–the title of world chess champion–has to be shared with a machine, Deep Blue, which beat Garry Kasparov in a highly publicized match in 1997. How could this be? What lessons could be gleaned from this shocking upset? Did we learn that machines could actually think as well as the smartest of us, or had chess been exposed as not such a deep game after all?

The following years saw two other human-machine chess matches that stand out: a hard-fought draw between Vladimir Kramnik and Deep Fritz in Bahrain in 2002 and a draw between Kasparov and Deep Junior in New York in 2003, in a series of games that the New York City Sports Commission called “the first World Chess Championship sanctioned by both the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE), the international governing body of chess, and the International Computer Game Association (ICGA).”

The verdict that computers are the equal of human beings in chess could hardly be more official, which makes the caviling all the more pathetic. The excuses sometimes take this form: “Yes, but machines don’t play chess the way human beings play chess!” Or sometimes this: “What the machines do isn’t really playing chess at all.” Well, then, what would be really playing chess?

This is not a trivial question. The best computer chess is well nigh indistinguishable from the best human chess, except for one thing: computers don’t know when to accept a draw. Computers–at least currently existing computers–can’t be bored or embarrassed, or anxious about losing the respect of the other players, and these are aspects of life that human competitors always have to contend with, and sometimes even exploit, in their games. Offering or accepting a draw, or resigning, is the one decision that opens the hermetically sealed world of chess to the real world, in which life is short and there are things more important than chess to think about. This boundary crossing can be simulated with an arbitrary rule, or by allowing the computer’s handlers to step in. Human players often try to intimidate or embarrass their human opponents, but this is like the covert pushing and shoving that goes on in soccer matches. The imperviousness of computers to this sort of gamesmanship means that if you beat them at all, you have to beat them fair and square–and isn’t that just what ­Kasparov and Kramnik were unable to do?

Yes, but so what? Silicon machines can now play chess better than any protein machines can. Big deal. This calm and reasonable reaction, however, is hard for most people to sustain. They don’t like the idea that their brains are protein machines. When Deep Blue beat Kasparov in 1997, many commentators were tempted to insist that its brute-force search methods were entirely unlike the exploratory processes that Kasparov used when he conjured up his chess moves. But that is simply not so. Kasparov’s brain is made of organic materials and has an architecture notably unlike that of Deep Blue, but it is still, so far as we know, a massively parallel search engine that has an outstanding array of heuristic pruning techniques that keep it from wasting time on unlikely branches.

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Credit: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Tagged: Computing

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