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Your Move

January 26, 2010

There is a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth when computers become able to perform a task formerly considered an exclusively human creative endeavor – a robot playing the violin, a program winning at chess.  We are not threatened by computers when they set us free from tasks generally considered tedious or injurious – when they do our taxes or sort boxes – but we find our communal sense of “humanity” endangered when they start treading into creative regions. 

Humanity has always had a need to identify certain individuals and raise them up, for reasons dependent on the needs or desires of the people and the times – Fearless Leaders, movie and rock stars, athletes, and sometimes even geniuses. Raising up one person for communal esteem serves both as a reassurance that we are capable of great things, and as a goad to our individual self-esteem to do more and better ourselves. 

Especially since the creation of Deep Blue, chess has been one of the lightning rods for the debate over AI as a “threat” to man’s status in the world, because 1) chess is deeply ingrained in our language and thought as a common metaphor for brilliance, strategy, ingenuity and grace under pressure, among other valuable human qualities, and 2) advances in computing power began to show the world that chess was, at least at the very outer limit of its mathematical probabilities, “nothing more” than an enormous mathematical problem.  There are only so many pieces on a board, so many squares, so many configurations of pieces at any given time; chess has a finite set of outcomes – a huge set, but finite.  All the chess games that have ever been played or ever will be played can reside in a database big enough to hold them, and given any point in a game a computer and program powerful enough can review the records of every other game in which the pieces were also set up “just so,” and determine which move and/or sets of moves are most likely to result in a win.  Run that series after every move and it becomes hard to see how any human brain can rival such a resource. 

As the “Grandmaster” loses the mystical powers that he or she had in the common mind, we in turn question our own value – this thing we thought was so great about us, this game we thought displayed the greatest human talents, can be reduced to something a calculator can do!  Why try, then, when a machine is just going to do it better?  Some of us see as much human glory in the creation of such a program as there is in the human it defeats, but we are in the minority.

The power of Chess As Metaphor stems from the fact that in its play, concrete knowledge and abstract thinking are supplemented with an “intuition” which until now only a human being could possess, a skill to be celebrated by those who don’t play at that level, if at all, because it can get you out of a corner, turn the tables, snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (name your own metaphor).  But when the game is revealed as “nothing” but a giant math problem, then we are confronted with the fact that luck, randomness, fortune, the Will of Ba’al, must all cease to be part of our win projections.

The human mind is funny – so many of our responses are atavistic and unconscious.  We forget that the computer itself is a work of human genius and consider it in primal terms, as an “other” who has conquered us and to whom we must submit – perhaps some deep genetic coding at work that kept us alive over millennia at the end of every intertribal conflict, even as it also sponsored feelings of resentment and prompted us to plot and plan the overthrow of our recent conqueror.  We cannot admire “it” as it’s not “one of us,” not a Manning but a Mussolini, come to take and not give.  As we have always done with our enemies, we create for “it,” the whole field of computer sciences, a singular malevolent persona – and even as our conscious minds admit that such a Software Sauron doesn’t really exist, our subconscious minds persist in projecting it, “robot overlords / Terminators” who will rule or kill us all.

I was set off on this line of thinking by an article in the New York Review of Books by chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov.  Kasparov discusses the reaction to his loss to Deep Blue in 1997:  "The result was met with astonishment and grief by those who took it as a symbol of mankind’s submission before the almighty computer.”  But, Kasparov notes, both chess players and the AI community had “a more nuanced appreciation of the result.”  The AI community was disappointed in the result, since they got a machine that “played like a machine,” rather than with HAL-like humanity.

Kasparov acknowledges that on that day, chess was “solved” as a mathematical problem, at least philosophically, because it appeared that “a mathematically conclusive way for a computer to win from the start” was now likely, given a computer with enough processing power.  But not yet, given the immense numbers of legal chess positions and possible games.  There are “more possible chess games than the number of atoms in the universe” – so the computer that can solve them all is a ways away.

What is exciting about this article is that Kasparov, along with many other chess players, has embraced the current power of chess computing, and they are finding ways to work with it rather than against it (emphasis mine):

The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again…It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers.

The availability of desktop chess programs, many of which are as powerful as the early mainframe competitors, has actually accelerated the development of young players, allowing them to absorb games and strategies far more rapidly than they could previously, with the number of teenage grandmasters multiplying at astonishing rates.

And here’s the real nature of human genius – rather than lay down and die after losing to Deep Blue, a year later Kasparov had a thought:

[I]n chess, as in so many things, what computers are good at is where humans are weak, and vice versa. This gave me an idea for an experiment. What if instead of human versus machine we played as partners? My brainchild saw the light of day in a match in 1998 in León, Spain, and we called it "Advanced Chess." Each player had a PC at hand running the chess software of his choice during the game. The idea was to create the highest level of chess ever played, a synthesis of the best of man and machine.

Although I had prepared for the unusual format, my match against the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov, until recently the world’s number one ranked player, was full of strange sensations. Having a computer program available during play was as disturbing as it was exciting. And being able to access a database of a few million games meant that we didn’t have to strain our memories nearly as much in the opening, whose possibilities have been thoroughly catalogued over the years. But since we both had equal access to the same database, the advantage still came down to creating a new idea at some point.

In another tournament in 2005, players were allowed to play “freestyle,” with players allowed to play in teams, be they teams of two or more players, one or more players and a computer, etc.:

The teams of human plus machine dominated 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.

The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and "coaching" their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

This is what genius really is – “turning the tables” and winning the game by rewriting the rules, converting the enemy into an ally, breaking out of the “known world” and defying the common [alleged] wisdom.  This is what humans do best – not play this game or perform that task or run this routine, but strategic cognition at a level over and above events occurring as governed by a static rule set.  And perhaps this is the greatest asset chess gives its greatest players – the ability to see many moves ahead, to see a game in which checkmate is avoidable even when it seems certain. 

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