Computer Chess Is Just Not Real

Garry Kasparov went down in flames yesterday, taking only an hour and 19 moves to resign to Deep Blue, the supercomputing chess machine designed to beat the reigning world champion. After trading wins in the first two games, Kasparov and Deep Blue played to a draw three times, setting up Game Six as the match's grand finale.

Kasparov stomped away from the board after resigning to IBM's highly touted technical wonder, angrily declaring that the contest had proven very little and that he had been demoralized ever since the computer's victory in Game Two. Even commentators were shocked at Kasparov's poor performance, as the grandmaster seemed to make some critical blunders early in the match.

But the machine still beat the man. Kasparov's nerves and frustration got the better of him, distracting him as Deep Blue calmly and unflinchingly reviewed its options at the rate of 200 million moves per second. Surely a second rematch will be scheduled, but for now, the reigning chess champion won by using its circuits, not its neurons.

The editorials in this week's newspapers will no doubt wax poetic on the meaning of Deep Blue's victory and what it portends for the sorry fate of modern man. The work of our hands has conquered us, they will say; our own successes will yet come back to haunt and destroy us. Human genius will be eulogized as nothing more than a complicated algorithm that was waiting to be decoded.

These fluffy, pseudo-philosophical ramblings are entertaining and are good fodder for dinner conversation, but they don't interest me much. Deep Blue's triumph ultimately says very little about the human spirit except that it is possible for a group of chess and computer wonks to build a machine that can beat the world's reigning chess champion. Deep Blue didn't and couldn't learn a single thing throughout the match, as it relied on its sheer processing power to calculate its next move. Relentless computation is not artificial intelligence.

The interesting question is: Why are people so interested in building a machine like Deep Blue? Obviously, IBM arranged the match as a gimmick to get publicity for its increasingly powerful computers. But why a chess match? One could understand a demonstration of technological prowess in the area of national defense, but chess?

It can hardly be argued that the game played by Kasparov and Deep Blue is the same as that played by grandmasters and amateurs around the world. A chess game without studied expressions, visible tension and fatigue is not really chess.

In general, competitive sports are what they are because of some element of error or unpredictability. Without those most human of qualities, these face-offs are reduced to mechanical skirmishes that lack any sense of the drama and profundity that are the essence of all great achievements. Speed skating without Dan Jansen's disastrous fall or baseball without Fred Merkle's classic boner are barely worth watching. The passion to create Deep Blue can only be explained as part of our society's continuing struggle with the technological revolution of this century. We tend to trust machines more than people, allowing the former's efficiency to dwarf and overshadow the latters creativity. Sometimes we regret our decisions, like when the National Football League dropped its failed experiment with instant replay. Other times, we seem overtaken by those choices, as in a world where live operators seem to have been totally and permanently replaced by monstrous touch-tone information menus.

Garry Kasparov's loss need not concern us. He went home $400,000 richer, and he will be back to play again, probably be in better form than he was this time. Deep Blue's victory is not our defeat. It should simply challenge us to reaffirm the importance of human creativity in our lives. As the technological revolution continues and as all of us leave here to fight its battles, we would do best not to lose sight of our most impressive and powerful asset: the human spirit.

This is Ethan M. Tucker's last column.