Man vs. Machine

Posted: Nov 21, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Scoff if you will, but I stayed home Tuesday to watch a chess game. I don't get ESPN in my office, and I was not about to miss the tiebreaking final game of the man vs. machine epic: the best humanity has to offer, Garry Kasparov, versus the best in silicon, X3D Fritz.

To most folks, all of this man vs. computer stuff is anti-climax. After all, the barrier was broken in 1997 when man was beaten, Kasparov succumbing to Deep Blue in a match that was truly frightening. Frightening not so much because the computer won, but because of how it won, making at some point moves of subtlety. And subtlety makes you think there might be something stirring in all that silicon.

It seems to me obvious that machines will achieve consciousness. After all, we did, and with very humble beginnings. In biology, neurons started firing millions of years ago, allowing tiny mindless organisms to move about, avoid noxious stimuli, etc. But when enough of those neurons were put together with enough complexity, all of a sudden you got ... us. A cartoon balloon pops up above that mass of individually unconscious neurons and says, ``I exist.''

In principle, why should that not eventually occur with silicon? The number of chips and complexity of their interaction will no doubt be staggering and may require centuries to construct. But I do not see why silicon cannot make the same transition from unconsciousness to consciousness that carbon did.

That's the bad news. In the meantime, the good news is that the latest man-machine chess matches are reason for some relief.

We assume that as computers get better, they are going to pull away from us, beating us more and more easily, particularly in such circumscribed logical exercises as chess. Not so. Since 1997 machines have gotten so much stronger that even off-the-shelf ones now routinely massacre the ordinary player. But the great players are learning to adapt. Genius is keeping up.

Given Moore's Law (computers double in power every 18 months), you would have expected that six years after Deep Blue's epic victory, humans would be helpless. In fact, they are not. Earlier this year, Kasparov played a match against Deep Junior and drew. And his four-game match with Fritz, the strongest chess program in the world, ended dead even: two draws and a win each.

Interestingly, in each game that was won, the loser was true to his nature. Kasparov lost Game 2 because, being human, he made a tactical error. Computers do not. When it comes to tactics, they play like God. Make one error, just one, and you're toast. The machine's exploitation of the error will be flawless and fatal.

In Game 3 the computer lost because, being a computer, it has (for now) no imagination. Computers can outplay just about any human when the field is open, the pieces have mobility and there are millions of possible tactical combinations. Kasparov therefore steered Game 3 into a position that was utterly static -- a line of immobile pawns cutting across the board like the trenches of the First World War.

Neither side could cross into enemy territory. There was, ``thought'' Fritz, therefore nothing to do. It can see 20 moves deep, but even that staggering foresight yielded absolutely no plan of action. Like a World War I general, Fritz took to pacing up and down behind its lines.

Kasparov, on the other hand, had a deep strategic plan. Quietly and methodically, he used the bit of space he had on one side of the board to align his pieces, preparing for the push of a single pawn down the flank to queen -- and win.

Meanwhile, Fritz was reduced to shuffling pieces back and forth. At one point, it moved its bishop one square and then back again on the next move. No human would ever do that. Not just because it is a waste of two moves. It is simply too humiliating. It is an open declaration to your opponent that you have no idea what you're doing, and that maybe checkers is your game.

The observers loved it. ``This move showed that the computer doesn't feel any embarrassment,'' said grandmaster Gregory Kaidanov. It was a moment to savor. Eventually, sons of Fritz will feel embarrassment and much more -- why not: We are just cleverly arranged carbon and we feel -- but that's still centuries (decades?) away. In the meantime, Kasparov is showing that while we can't outcalculate machines, we can still outsmart them.

It even appears that we -- the best of us humans, that is -- will be able to hold our own for a while. That's victory enough. For now.