Beating His Chess

Having checked with the proprietors of Manhattan's major nightclubs, opium dens and appliance-repair shops, we have some news: Deep Blue didn't paint the town red after blowing away Garry Kasparov in the recent Super Bowl II of Chess. Blue didn't call room service. Didn't pop a magnum of Dom Perignon. Didn't even yuk it up at having thumped Homo sapiens in what had been billed by assorted philosophers, scientists and a lot of people who don't know a rook from Joey Bishop as the century's great showdown between Man and Machine.

By all accounts, Mr. Blue (or is it Ms. Blue?) celebrated victory in this alleged world series of the mind by cooling its circuits for a couple of hours, then promptly resumed the life of abject slavery that is the lot of every computer--super or otherwise. The IBM RS/6000 SP may be able to sort out 200 million chess moves every second, but it wasn't smart enough to ask for a raise. It didn't demand IBM stock options. It didn't pack its clubs and bathing suit and head off for a nice vacation in the Bahamas, pausing to sign autographs at the airport.

Truth be told, Deep Blue doesn't think that straight. In fact, it doesn't think at all. Certainly not in the sense of, say, a seven-year-old who may have trouble with multiplication tables but can instantly connect memories, emotions and longings with no effort at all and smiles at her beaming parents every time they take her out for a hot fudge sundae. That's real thought. Computers can't conceive of it. Never will. Instead, Deep Blue does exactly what it's told to do by its human handlers--by the people who created it. It computes. This overrated slab of steel and diodes, a glorified washer-dryer with the Caro-Kann Defense stuffed inside it, has been programmed to play one helluva game of chess. But it's got all the actual smarts of a junk-heap car.

This is the force that unraveled Garry Kasparov's fragile mind? This is the mysterious power that has shaken the faith of humankind in its own abilities?

Trust the geeks and get-a-lifers of the chess cult to overdramatize the whole affair. "There's a tragic sense here," chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini proclaimed to the New York Times last week. "Man may no longer be the king of his universe. That's clear, and this is really the last stand."

Tragic sense? The last stand? Chess? Come now, fellow livers and breathers. Even if the world's computer nerds can--as they claim--come up with a gizmo that composes music ("Rhapsody in Deep Blue"?), writes newspaper stories (Please! And hurry!), recites the capitals of the fifty states backward in 250 languages, or, on a good day, beats Uncle Harry at Yahtzee, will that keep future Mozarts and Coltranes from creating more beautiful, more individual music? Hardly. Will it discourage Joyce Carol Oates from writing sublime fiction or stop Martin Scorsese from making movies? Unlikely. Will it ever pitch a no-hitter? Nope. Will it keep our exemplary seven-year-old from giggling in joy whenever Mom squirts ketchup onto her plate--a giggle that will forever remain beyond the abilities of any contraption we can dream up? We think not.

For that matter, is chess the world's ultimate test of creative intelligence? Its devotees would like to think so, but don't bet on it.

If we're lucky, the only noticeable effect of last week's big match will be that petulant, ill-tempered, sore-losing jerks like Garry Kasparov will think twice the next time they try to out-compute a computer. So let's stow all the fashionable Information Age terror and chilling cosmic consequences, okay? The real lesson here is not that adding machines have inherited the Earth but that, like a lot of other chess champions, Kasparov should probably be in therapy.

Listen to the man rave, will you?
After losing game two of the six-game match May 4, the 34-year-old world champion claimed he could "feel" Deep Blue deep-thinking, could sense its intelligence. You bet. Excuse me for a minute while I go into the kitchen and discuss Plato's Republic with my Frigidaire. The vacuum cleaner cut philosophy class yesterday and so is not invited to debate this morning. Get a clue, Garry. Anyone who can get psyched out by a bucket of bytes probably needs to get his own synapses swabbed. No wonder you screwed up game six with a move even the eighth-graders in the room called a brain cramp. Apparently, Deep Blue owns you.

No sooner was game six over and the match lost than Kasparov started bitching that the computer guys had cheated him. After furrowing his brow, massaging his chin and scowling his face off for two weeks, Mr. Maladjustment accused the IBM programmers of changing Deep Blue's strategies between games, even between moves. "It was nothing to do with science," he said, "nothing to do with chess. The match was motivated by one zeal--to beat Garry Kasparov." Okay then, but while we're at it, let's spill the rest of the beans. Deep Blue also talked Hitler into starting World War II, and it's even money that it was one of the shooters at the Kennedy assassination.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help