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13 Things 2009

13 Things 2008

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

Back to The Game of Chess...

Before continuing, please inspect the Chess: Automata Photos page

It has a summary of all of the psychological and computer related ideas we have come across.

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Mechanical Turk

What do we have to learn from the Mechanical Turk? Surprisingly little, I believe. The truth is that few of the lucky European elites who received the presentation probably thought that it represented human intelligence. And the story of computer chess is all about "human" intelligence.

The Mechanical Turk is a good parable for the black box. How are we, as humans, supposed to interact with an object that we do not understand. The Mechanical Turk, as shown above, was in the form of a cabinet. But very unlike the cabinets of the day was the elaborate set of gears, dials, and other controls that seemed incongruous to the play of chess. The Turk, for means of exciting its audience, featured all sorts of doors and levers. These served to distract everybody from the operation of chess, despite that being its supposed purpose. Furthermore, it featured odd control - like a pointer that signaled certain things to the operator - that seemed incongruous for a thinking individual. The Turk showed, perhaps for the first time, that humans had lost the ability to discern function from the odd form they were presented. In fact, it showed that a human is relatively easy to fool. The Turk shows us that we can't know everything - and if it didn't beat many in chess, it "defeated" many humans by forcing them to struggle with their conception of machine vs. being. (1)

But I would argue that few saw the automaton as an intelligent being. In fact, many skeptics fortunately reasoned that it would be simpler to fake a chess machine than make it with 1800s hardware. These skeptics had hypothesized correctly places in which to stow the player so that it would be invisible to the audience. Of course, these voices were not loud - and many were confused. However, the level of mysticism associated with the Turk separates it from notions of computer chess today. After all, some people debated whether it was the "Turkishness" of the Turk that was its secret! (2)

The Stakes

Implicitly, I've alluded to this the whole way through. Alekhine said that chess is only good as long as it is clever. Capablanca warned that when chess is methodical, it will be of no use to us. So chess might die. Probably worse is that Capablanca felt that (after the death of chess) people would have no reason to gain intelligence via the game. Arguably, we would move on to a better game - Go is a (possibly singular?) example.

Theoretical Limits on Computer Chess

The theory seems to favor that chess will be solved. There are about 10^47 legal positions, and most of them (except those that can be avoided by the automaton) would require a "perfect move" to be followed. It is reasonable to believe, that given lots of time and computing power, chess can be solved in spite of its weird rules because it is finite.

Game theory shows that there exists an optimal strategy for at least one of the players (if both, then the game is always a draw, like Tic-Tac-Toe). There is some remote possibility that if you played as first player and the computer as second, you could win on occasion. In perfect play, though, it is probable that the first player who plays always wins or ties. Checkers has already reached this fate, although its still fun! [link]

Computer Chess and its Implications

But chess is not meant to be fun, and there are serious complications if chess is solved.

Chess has been equated, in many circumstances, to human intelligence. So how we view human intelligence is informed - in part - by chess. The problem is whether we equate our intelligence to "the ability to apply knowledge" or something more abstract and artistic.

Consider how most computer chess algorithms work: 1) the game initiates some known best first moves, then 2) does a deep search of the move space, using heuristics and parameters to cut off branches in the search tree and when it reaches 3) some endgame state stored in its database, tries to force the opponent to reach this end state. In a sense, the computer is the victor because it can consider a wider range of game states than any human. Nevertheless, the critical operation is based on some standards for manipulating the data that is informed through a human perception of chess, game theory, and geometry. Consider that IBM's Deep Blue was made exclusively for chess-playing. Although it can consider 200 million moves per second, it couldn't even play Tic-Tac-Toe. (3) And then you would beat it! Also, a computer can almost be defeated by a novice in the game Go, where the "rules" for what is a good state are harder to calculate.

Some of my colleagues consider a human a well-engineered machine that runs very good source code - code that allows for intelligence, but also the other human properties, as well as perceptive skills like image data processing that is hard on a computer. From this standpoint, it is difficult to see computer chess as a victory of the machine over mankind's intelligence. As described above, the operation of a computer chess machine is defined by human constructs like digital memory models and endgame databases. Thus, the way that a chess computer retrieves the best move is largely human in the above definition (albeit faster, and more precise). If and when chess is solved, it will be the fault of the game (and those pesky creators who didn't think about the future) under these premises.

Other people look on human intelligence as being defined by abstract art, nondeterministic output, and infinite possibility. Those people have a bit more to fear from chess' unraveling. Garry Kasparov commented that, while playing against Deep Blue, he saw creativity in the moves that he believed surpassed those of other human players. The deep problem is that we perceive artistic and creative qualities in the output of devices run by rules. This is not only a chess phenomenon; consider that many people now consider Google to be a friend, or at least a pretty knowledgeable confidant. What we have to fear by computer chess is that is could prove that we are similar to a machine - which poses many religious and philosophical implications I cannot start to get into. American chess columnist Greengard said that "Deep Junior, has so far passed the chess Turing Test." The Turing test is a hypothetical test of human intelligence that is the barrier for entry into the "intelligent" category. It would be inconvenient for chess to make this hypothesis provable. (4)

Who Wins, Who Loses?

It's pretty much a lost cause to try to beat a computer at chess at this point. I think that the only loss is to fear the computer, as Garry Kasparov suggests in the quote below. Even if a computer wins, that does not detract from the game's cultural influence covered here. It does mean that the motivation for competitive chess will wane, and that means chess is likely to lose its influence in this wash of new media and multiplayer games.

"This was a very tough match, which demanded a lot of my energy. It was also a very interesting match, that captured the imagination of millions of people all over the world. Unfortunately, they also got to see some errors on my part...

I admit that I was probably too optimistic at the start of the match. I followed the conventional wisdom when playing computers of playing 'ugly' openings non-theoretical to avoid early confrontation, to accumulate positional advantages and then I was confident that my calculation would stay at a high level once the confrontation occurred.

My whole preparation was a failure because Deep Blue played very differently from what I expected. My preparation was based on some wrong assumptions about its strategy; and when after game 2 it proved to be a disaster, I over-worked myself. I actually spent more energy on the games in this match than for any before in my life. Every game in this match took a lot out of me. There was enormous pressure because I had to keep my eye on every possibility, since I didn't want to miss any single shot."(5)

  1. The great chess automaton. p. 1-19.
  2. The great chess automaton. p. 55, 99.
  3. Shenk, David. The immortal game. Loc. 2570-2802.
  4. Shenk, David. The immortal game. Loc. 2598.
  5. [link]