The worst possible way to be beaten at your own game

To become really good at anything requires years of effort and dedication. To become a world champion in any type of sport requires you to make it a part of your life. But what happens when, after you have put in the years of training, practise and hard work, someone else comes along – who’s put in half the effort you have – and beats you anyway? And what does it feel like when – just to make things worse – the opponent who defeats you is not a fellow homo sapiens but a computer; which probably didn’t even exist when you started learning the game? Let’s take a look at three world champions who have had this terrible experience and how they have reacted and coped (or not) afterwards.

1. Garry Kasparov. Chess Champion

In 1997, Garry Kasparov was anyone’s definition of a champion. He was a chess grandmaster, the youngest ever undisputed world chess champion in history and the holder of eight Chess Oscars. On top of this, he was undefeated and had once bragged about how he would never lose to a machine. In May of 1997 however, IBM’s chess playing computer Deep Blue made him eat these badly chosen words. Of the six games Kasparov and Deep Blue played; Kasparov won the first, lost the second, drew the next three and then was crushed beneath the wheels of Deep Blue’s console in the sixth; in one of the most humiliating defeats of anyone’s professional chess career.

Kasparov veered afterwards between taking his defeat with dignity and insisting that the IBM team running Deep Blue must have been cheating. In the second of the six games, Deep Blue made a move that was totally counter-intuitive, but turned out to be tactically brilliant. Another chess grandmaster Yasser Seirawan described it as “an incredibly refined move, of defending while ahead to cut out any hint of countermoves.” Kasparov is convinced this is proof that someone was remotely controlling Deep Blue from behind the scenes (though how IBM managed to recruit a human chess champion capable of giving Kasparov a run for his money, who they could smuggle into a well-attended chess event disguised as a member of the programming team without them being recognized, and who was willing to do it for the sole purpose of proving machines were better at chess than he was, is anybody’s guess).

According to different sources at IBM; there are two possible explanations for Deep Blue’s masterstroke. Either it genuinely couldn’t decide on a move and winged it, picking the brilliant move at random, or there was a programming glitch which caused it to make the move and the team actually reprogrammed Deep Blue in a break between rounds to make sure – ironically – that it wouldn’t do it again. Kasparov has also insisted they were doing this to adapt it to his playing strategy as they went along (though why they would have bothered when Deep Blue already had months of his previous games programmed into its memory is also anybody’s guess) but – when you’ve got a reputation like Kasparov’s to protect – accusing the opposition of cheating is probably preferable to admitting you might have been beaten by a computer and by accident. To sum up the match in Kasparov’s own words: “Deep Blue was only intelligent the way your programmable alarm clock is intelligent. Not that losing to a $10 million alarm clock made me feel any better.”

2. Ken Jennings. TV quiz show champion.

The TV quiz show Jeopardy! is unlikely to ever be included in the Olympics, but if it was, Ken Jennings would be the only choice for the American contestant. He entered the Guinness Book of Records in 2004 with a 74 shows winning streak and $2,520,700 in prize money. In 2011 however, Jennings learnt that a human brain wasn’t the only thing that could contain all the kings and queens of England and solve cryptic word questions when he accepted a Jeopardy! match against another IBM computer Watson.

Jennings went in “pretty confident that I was going to win. I had taken some Artificial Intelligence classes and I knew there were no computers that could do what you need to do to win on Jeopardy. People don’t realize how tough it is to write that kind of program that can read a clue in a natural language like English — to understand the puns, the red herrings, to unpack just the meaning of the clue…  I thought, ‘Yes I will come destroy the computer.’”

But Jennings’s intricate grasp of English indicated by that last sentence wasn’t enough. Despite incorrectly identifying Toronto as a US City in the final round, Watson rode home in triumph with the $1 million first place prize. Jennings came second, saying afterwards that he felt “obsolete. I felt like a Detroit factory worker in the ‘80s seeing a robot that could now do his job on the assembly line. I felt like ‘Quiz Show Contestant’ was now the first job that had become obsolete under this new regime of thinking computers.” All units hail Skynet!

3. Doctor Hubert Dreyfus. Philosophy professor

In the 1960s, Doctor Dreyfus was not a world champion. But as a professor of philosophy at MIT, he was clearly a man who knew his stuff. This was why, when he stated in his confidently-titled masterpiece What Computers Can’t Do that no computer would ever be able to beat a human 10-year-old at chess, his expert opinion was initially accepted.

In 1967 however, a group of MIT students led by Seymour Papert decided to take up the challenge and offered their chess playing computer, the Mac Hack IV, as the opponent to Dreyfus’s 10-year-old.

Dreyfus doesn’t appear to have been quite as keen to put his money where his mouth was as his book title suggested. Rather than actually finding a 10-year-old chess prodigy to match wits with the computer (and how hard could this possibly have been at MIT?) he decided to play the Mac Hack himself. The computer-vs-philosopher duel was witnessed by articifical intelligence pioneer Herbert A. Simon, who concluded: “It was a wonderful game – a real cliffhanger between two woodpushers with bursts of insights and fiendish plans… great moments of drama and disaster that go in such games.”

The game ended with the Mac Hack wiping the floor with Dreyfus, 30 years before Deep Blue would do the same to Kasparov. Delivering a fiendishly clever series of moves, the Mac Hack kept Dreyfus in checks that he had to escape from, until it created the opportunity to exchange its own king and queen and checkmate Dreyfus permanently in the middle of the board; very decisively proving him wrong about what computers can’t do. Given the scale of the defeat, it’s probably a good thing that Dreyfus wasn’t betting money on the outcome or promising to eat his own shorts if he lost.

There seems to be only one lesson to take away from this. Humans create computers. Therefore, we can teach them to do anything that we can do. How long is it going to be before computers can produce prose comparable to Shakespeare, Chekhov and Hemmingway? How long before writers are rendered as obsolete as chess champions, quiz show contestants, philosophy professors and cars that you have to drive by yourself. How does it feel to be beaten at your own game by a computer? In one word: bad!


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Robot Uprising | Kit Downes: Writing

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