Why the Deep Blues?
By Jaron Lanier
The game of chess possesses a rare combination of qualities, from the point of
view of a human mind. It is easy to understand the rules, yet hard to play
well; and most importantly, the quest to master chess seems to be eternal.
Human players surmount ever higher plateaus of skill, and yet no one has been
able to make the claim that chess skill can be pushed no further.
What makes chess fascinating to us is precisely that we're bad at it. From a
contemporary computer scientist's point of view, human brains routinely do
things that would seem much harder to accomplish, such as understanding
sentences, and yet people do not have sentence-comprehension tournaments --
because we find that task too easy, too ordinary.
Computers fascinate and frustrate us in a similar way. Children learn to
program them, and yet it is hard for the most accomplished professional to
program them well. Despite the evident potential of computers, we know for
certain that we have not thought of the best programs to write. Simple systems
that can be played out beyond our horizon are constant reminders of the
limitations of the human intellect. Chess reminds us that though we are
compelled to try, we can never fully master our fates.
Computers and chess share a common ancestry. Both originated as tools of
war. Chess began as a battle simulation, a mental martial art. (The design of
chess reverberates even further back in the past than that, all the way back to
our sad animal ancestry of pecking orders and competing clans.) Modern
computers, likewise, were developed to aim missiles and break military secret
codes. Chess and computers are both direct descendants of the violence that
drives evolution in the natural world, however sanitized and abstracted it may
be in the context of civilization. The drive for competition is palpable in
both computers and chess, and when they are brought together, adrenaline flows.
But all of this is not enough to explain the outpouring of public angst on the
occasion of Deep Blue's recent victory. To be fair, the event was amplified
through the prism of the mass media; yet it is clear that the mass response was
genuine and deeply felt. There was much talk about whether human beings were
still special, whether computers were becoming our equal.
This way of framing the event is unfortunate. What happened was primarily
that a team of computer scientists built a very fast machine and figured out a
better way to represent the problem of how to choose the next move in a chess
game. This accomplishment was performed by people, not machines, and its
character was intellectual just as much as it was technical. The Deep Blue
team's central victory was one of clarity and elegance in thought.
In order for a computer to beat the human chess champion, two kinds of
progress had to converge; an increase in raw hardware power, and an improvement
in the sophistication and clarity with which the decisions of chess play are
represented in software. This dual path made it hard to predict the year, but
not the eventuality, that a computer would triumph. If the Deep Blue team had
not been as good at the software problem, a computer would still have been able
to become the world champion at some later date due to sheer brawn. So the
suspense was not whether a computer would ever beat the best human at chess,
but rather the degree to which elegance of thought (among the programmers)
would play a role in the victory. Deep Blue won earlier than it might have,
scoring a point for elegance.
The public reaction to the defeat of Kasparov leaves the computer science
community with an important question, however. Is it useful to portray
computers themselves as intelligent, or human-like in any way? Does this
presentation serve to clarify or obscure the role of computers in our lives?
I believe the attribution of intelligence to machines obscures more than it
illuminates. When people are told a computer is intelligent, we are prone to
changing ourselves in order to make the computer appear to work better, instead
of demanding that the computer be changed to become more useful. Treating
computers as intelligent, autonomous entities ends up standing the process of
engineering on its head; we can't afford to respect our own designs so much.
The same algorithms that are found in "intelligent" systems can just as well be
presented to users as subservient tools, and the latter choice is much more
likely to elicit the feedback needed to improve designs and performance.
I'm in a minority in holding this opinion: the mainstream in computer science
is comfortable with the notion that computers are becoming "intelligent." The
origin of this idea can be found in the celebrated thought experiment known as
the Turing Test, after Alan Turing, one of the inventors of the modern
computer. According to Turing, if a computer and a human are concealed behind
screens and a human judge who interacts with both is fooled into thinking the
machine is a human, then the computer can be said to posses an intellect equivalent to a human's. It might be made of chips instead of biological cells, but if it
can act in an equivalent way to a person, does its body really matter? Many
thoughtful computer scientists who have been influenced by Turing have come to
believe that computers are on their way to becoming an intelligent life form.
If the Turing Test is right, then it would seem unfair, "racist" in a way, to
think of a sufficiently powerful computer as a mere tool for humans.
In practice the Turing Test is dangerously flawed, because it is impossible to
distinguish whether the computer is getting more human-like or the human is
getting more computer-like. People are vulnerable, unfortunately, to making
themselves stupid in order to make computers appear to be smarter. In real
world applications where versions of the Turing Test are mundanely played out
in miniature every day, it is far too likely that the human will become
"stupider" -- or rather "simpler"; that a human will adapt to fit the
expectations of the software model of human behavior imbedded in a computer
The process of human accommodation can be seen in many quarters as we entrust
information systems with more and more decisions of consequence. It is found in
the degree to which personal behavior has been modified to please the
reductionist algorithms that determine credit ratings. (Many people change
their financial behavior in subtle ways in order to appear favorably to these
programs -- for example by borrowing on occasion even when it is not needed.)
More serious are so-called "intelligent agent" programs that help users find
content on the Internet. To use these programs, ones taste must conform to the
editorial distinctions that can be expressed by the agent's internal software
-- and those epresentations must be kept hidden in order to maintain the
illusion of the agent's autonomy. In order to play along with the fantasy of
computer intelligence, users may never realize the subtleties of their own
judgments that they never had the chance to nurture and express.
Whenever a computer is imagined to be intelligent, what is really happening is
that humans have abandoned aspects of the subject at hand in order to remove
from consideration whatever the computer is blind to. This happened to chess
itself in the case of Deep Blue. There is an aspect of chess that is a little
like poker; the staring down of an opponent, the projection of confidence.
Even though it would be relatively easy to write a simple program to play poker
"as well as" the best human player, poker is really a game about the subtleties
of non-verbal communication between people, such as bluffing and hiding
emotion. In the wake of Deep Blue's victory, the poker side of chess has been
largely overshadowed by the abstract, algorithmic aspect -- while ironically it
was in the poker side of the game that Kasparov failed critically.
Kasparov ultimately seems to have allowed himself to be spooked by the
computer, even after he demonstrated an ability to defeat it on occasion. He
might very well have won if he were playing a human player with exactly the
same skill as Deep Blue (at least as the computer exists this year). Instead,
Kasparov detected a sinister stone face where in fact there was absolutely
nothing. While the contest was not intended as a Turing Test, it ended up as
one, and Kasparov was fooled.