February 19, 1996

Mean Chess-Playing Computer Tears at Meaning of Thought

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  • Chess: A Collision of Brains and Brawn


    As the world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, rallied from behind and stormed to victory last week over Deep Blue, the IBM computer that is the newest and strongest inanimate challenger to human chess supremacy, the sanctity of human intelligence seemed to dodge a bullet. People remain the smartest entities on the planet, for a little while longer, anyway.

    Or so the prevailing sentiment would have it.

    But for many cognitive scientists, computer experts and philosophers, the question is not: Which entity is more intelligent? Rather, it is: What is intelligence, anyway? The smart answer is, It depends on whom you ask.

    Both Kasparov and his adviser on computers, Frederick Friedel, said this week that they felt Deep Blue, with its vast computational excavations of each chess position, had begun to emanate signs of artificial intelligence, the first they had ever sensed from a machine.

    "As it goes deeper and deeper, it displays elements of strategic understanding," Friedel said of Deep Blue. "Somewhere out there, mere tactics are translating into strategy. This is the closest thing I've seen to computer intelligence. It's a weird form of intelligence, the beginning of intelligence. But you can feel it. You can smell it."

    Herbert Simon, a professor of computer science, psychology and philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, concurred. Any computer thinks to some degree, he said, when it brings to bear the element of problem solving he calls selectivity -- that is, a sense of knowing where to look in its warehouse of information for its answer to a question.

    Human thought, he said, consists of "first, a great capacity for recognition, and second, a capability for selective research."

    Deep Blue has to be considered a thinker, he said, because along with its colossal ability "to spin its wheels", the brute force calculation which is the traditional strength of computers, it also has a sophisticated evaluation system. In other words, Deep Blue, like a human being, does not have to search out each and every possible chess move to discover the best option; it has the ability, programmed in its software, to recognize useless possibilities and discard them along the way, a function that increases its efficiency.

    This, of course, is what a human chess player does; Kasparov cannot match the computer's searching speed, but with his intuition and experience, he does not have to. He recognizes fruitlessness instinctively.

    It was in 1957 that Simon, whose lifelong research has focused on the human thought process and who won a Nobel Prize in economics in 1978, predicted that a computer would be the world chess champion within a decade; in that service, he helped design a computer program that tried to emulate the thought processes of a grandmaster.

    He proved to be wrong, and today he says he did not understand it would be brute force as opposed to selectivity that would bring a chess computer to an equal footing with men and women. But that does not diminish the accomplishment of Deep Blue, he said, which with its powerful amalgam of brute force and selectivity, is not unlike what humans do, if different in the ratio of its elements.

    There are different types of thinking, he added, "but I would call what Deep Blue does thinking."

    Baloney, said John R. Searle, a philosophy professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "The Rediscovery of the Mind," (MIT Press, 1992), which argues against the possibility of mechanical thought.

    "From a purely mathematical point of view," Searle said, "chess is a trivial game because there's perfect information about it. For any given position there's an optimal move; it's solvable. It's not like football or war. It's a great game for us because our minds can't see the solution, but the fact that we will build machines that can do it better than we can is no more important than the fact that we can build pocket calculators that can add and subtract better than we can."

    Searle scoffed at Friedel's sense that the calculating power of Deep Blue had begun to evince the feel of an intelligent being.

    "I could say the same thing about my pocket calculator," he said. "In the early days I could outwit it. Divide 10 by 3, then multiply that by 3 again. You wouldn't get 10 again; you'd get 9.999999. Now, they have tricks to solve that. But in order to get human intelligence, you've got to be conscious. Does the computer worry about its next move? Does it worry about whether its wife is bored by the length of the games?"

    Virtually everyone seems to agree on two things. One is that it is inevitable that a computer will eventually be the world chess champion. The other is that whatever the accomplishment of Deep Blue, the accomplishment of its creators is sublime.

    "In building a path-breaking, successful program, the IBM team has definitely demonstrated artistry that is impressive and moving," said David Gelernter, the Yale art historian and computer scientist. "But the artistry is on display in the code, the program they wrote, more than in the chess game played by the computer, which is hard to associate with their own creativity and artistry."

    A. Joseph Hoane, one of Deep Blue's programmers, said after the match that there was no question they could go on and improve the machine, but he wondered aloud whether he wanted to be part of it. The research was undertaken as part of a more general effort to bring powerful parallel processing technology to bear on complex computational problems, a field of study with proven applications in such diverse arenas as pharmacology, data mining, finance and air traffic control.

    "I want my work to be fundamentally useful, and after this I have to be shown that it is," Hoane said. "At this point I have to wonder whether I'd be spending my time doing computer science or whether I'd be spending it improving the way a computer plays chess."

    Several cognitive scientists said Deep Blue's victory in the opening game of the recent match told more about chess than about intelligence.

    "It was a watershed event, but it doesn't have to do with computers becoming intelligent," said Douglas Hofstadter, a professor of computer science at Indiana University and author of several books about human intelligence, including "Godel, Escher, Bach," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980, with its witty argument about the connecting threads of intellect in various fields of expression. "They're just overtaking humans in certain intellectual activities that we thought required intelligence. My God, I used to think chess required thought. Now, I realize it doesn't. It doesn't mean Kasparov isn't a deep thinker, just that you can bypass deep thinking in playing chess, the way you can fly without flapping your wings."

    Those who ascribe to the theory that machines are just machines that will always be apprenticed to human masters tend to view the hoopla over the chess match and the worry over the ascension of the machine as, well, "crazy," to use the word of Berkeley's Searle.

    "It's just a hunk of junk that somebody's designed," he said of Deep Blue.

    Paul Saffo, a technology expert at the Institute for the Future, a think tank in Menlo Park, Calif., more or less agreed. "People who fear machines don't need to lose any sleep just yet," he said. "To me, the match was interesting as a cultural event. Chess, whereas it's a difficult problem to solve for computer scientists, is just a constrained formal problem. O.K., a computer beat a grandmaster, but computers aren't any smarter than they were the day before. The question I'd ask, now that this Rubicon has been passed, is What's the new arbitrary measure? Maybe it's a computer that plays go," -- the ancient Japanese board game that has yet to be conquered by a machine -- "or a computer that can fill in an IRS form without getting an audit."

    Hofstadter has another idea. He says it is not impossible that a machine might one day learn from experiences and feel things as humans do. But in the meantime, that is still what separates us and them.

    In "Godel, Escher, Bach" he held chess-playing to be a creative endeavor with the unrestrained threshold of excellence that pertains to arts like musical composition or literature. Now, he says, the computer gains of the last decade have persuaded him that chess is not as lofty an intellectual endeavor as music and writing; they require a soul.

    "I think chess is cerebral and intellectual," he said, "but it doesn't have deep emotional qualities to it, mortality, resignation, joy, all the things that music deals with. I'd put poetry and literature up there, too. If music or literature were created at an artistic level by a computer, I would feel this is a terrible thing."

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