Checkmate?

"The future of chess lies in the hands of this young man." Former world chess champion Mikhail Botvinnik spoke these words 23 years ago about Garry Kasparov, the 34-year old Russian who is in a showdown this week with the IBM chess supercomputer known as Deep Blue.Little did Botvinnik know the truth of his prediction. He surely wasn't imagining Kasparov, World Champion for the past 12 years and arguably the greatest chess player who has ever lived, sitting down to a tense week-long match with a machine. To hear some tell it, though, Kasparov's hands hold more than the future of chess -- he's playing for the future of the human race. Kasparov is being asked to prove that there are some contests in which computers will never best us. Unfortunately for the hopeful, I'm afraid that chess is not one of them. But if Deep Blue beats Garry Kasparov, does that mean that it is more intelligent than he is? Of course not. Will that computer ever be a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal like Kasparov? Will it ever write a book about playing chess? No.In fact, computer researchers have for the most part given up looking at chess-playing as any kind of test of machine intelligence.They clung to it for decades, though, for several reasons besides the convenient fact that the basic rules of chess are simple and easily programmed. First, though the rules are relatively uncomplicated, the number of possible moves and games is almost limitless. This means that a chess-playing computer cannot rely solely on "brute-force" searches for the best move but must also have general strategies to help sort good moves from bad ones. Second, a chess game has an easily quantified result -- win, lose, or draw. If you try to make a computer that is better than humans in abstract painting, you'll never get people to agree on when you've succeeded. Third, most obvious but most important, chess is perceived to require intelligence. Researchers have been trying (and failing) to make unbeatable chess computers for a long time. Deep Blue can consider 200 million possible moves per second, yet Garry Kasparov -- who can consider about 3 per second -- can still beat it.I do believe that one of these years IBM, or somebody else, will wheel out a computer that will be able to beat any human in chess. But so what? Not only is the game of chess not the sole measure of intelligence, but intelligence is not the sole measure of being human.Far from being an ultimate showdown, these six games of chess are just another human skirmish with our own creations. People have been getting bumped by machines since before the first mechanical loom was smashed by a Luddite. Hell, Deep Blue itself might cost a few Washington Square Park chess hustlers some income if IBM goes through with plans to connect it to the Internet to take on all comers.In fact, the whole event is a public relations bonanza for IBM. Computer-using chess fans around the world are tuning in to a special website IBM has set up for the occasion. And though the prize money, over a million dollars, is substantial, nobody seems very concerned with that part. Still, I hope Kasparov wins. Not to save humanity -- I just think IBM owes him. ***Sites in my SightsIf you have any interest in this match I highly recommend a visit to the IBM site (www.chess.ibm.com). The cheerleading for their computer can be off-putting, but you can learn a lot about computer chess there. To get the most out of it all, dive into the conferencing site hosted by Electric Minds (chess.minds.com). There you can engage in discussions with chess experts, aficionados, and novices from all around the world. Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingIBM notes that the technology being developed for Deep Blue could be useful in non-chess tasks, such as "data mining" -- analysis that seeks out formerly invisible patterns in massive mountains of data. One could use data mining techniques on census data and individual medical records to find risk factors for cancer. Good stuff -- unless of course you're one of the unlucky ones whose insurance premiums double because of it. If you worry about how your increasingly digital medical record might be used or abused, you're not alone. Groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology (www.cdt.org/privacy/health/) are working to formulate policy guidelines so that individual rights don't get trampled in the move to computerization. Your move! Send a letter in care of this publication or drop a line via e-mail to pb@well.com. The Cyberia website is at www.well.com/user/pb/cyb/©1997 by Paul Bissex

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