Daniel C. Dennett on Kasparov vs. Deep Blue

21 08 2007

Daniel C. Dennett in Technology Review

The verdict that computers are the equal of human beings in chess could hardly be more official, which makes the caviling all the more pathetic. The excuses sometimes take this form: “Yes, but machines don’t play chess the way human beings play chess!” Or sometimes this: “What the machines do isn’t really playing chess at all.” Well, then, what would be really playing chess?

This is not a trivial question. The best computer chess is well nigh indistinguishable from the best human chess, except for one thing: computers don’t know when to accept a draw. Computers–at least currently existing computers–can’t be bored or embarrassed, or anxious about losing the respect of the other players, and these are aspects of life that human competitors always have to contend with, and sometimes even exploit, in their games. Offering or accepting a draw, or resigning, is the one decision that opens the hermetically sealed world of chess to the real world, in which life is short and there are things more important than chess to think about. This boundary crossing can be simulated with an arbitrary rule, or by allowing the computer’s handlers to step in. Human players often try to intimidate or embarrass their human opponents, but this is like the covert pushing and shoving that goes on in soccer matches. The imperviousness of computers to this sort of gamesmanship means that if you beat them at all, you have to beat them fair and square–and isn’t that just what ­Kasparov and Kramnik were unable to do?

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1 09 2008
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