June 25, 2017

Man vs. Machine

Chess whiz Garry Kasparov has started another match against an electronic opponent. Much has been made of the man vs. machine battle, with right-thinking humanists everywhere lining up on Kasparov’s side, supporting human intellect and determination against the cold, mechanical logic of the computer.

I’m rooting for the machine.

Kasparov’s performance at the chessboard is awe-inspiring – a true triumph of the intellect. You can’t help but admire what he represents.

But if you know much of anything about his opponent, you’ll realize that it too is a monument to human achievement. The computer, Deep Junior, was built and programmed by people, not machines. People, not machines, figured out how to make a computer play brilliant chess despite the computer’s pathetic inability to mimic Kasparov’s brain. Deep Junior is the culmination of decades of work by an army of anonymous engineers and researchers, each contributing a few brilliant ideas to the technological edifice that made Deep Junior possible. To me, that story is more exciting than Kasparov’s talent, and just as human.

The standard knock on chess computers is that they are brainless and succeed only by brute force. As a one-time computer chess researcher, I can assure you that that image is misleading. Computers lack Kasparov’s intuition about chess, so they have to look far into the possible sequences of moves and countermoves. But blind exploration of all possible move sequences fails miserably due to the exponentially large number of possibilities. Instead, the best computer chess players are fantastically clever about where to apply their limited knowledge, about which move sequences to explore and in which order to explore them. The authors of these programs have collectively invented a new way to think about chess, one that focuses not on seeing as deeply as Kasparov but on knowing where to look. Considered on its own terms, this is at least as impressive as what Kasparov has done.

If you knew the people who have worked all of this out, and if you had seen their struggle, you might just root for Deep Junior too.