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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Daily Diary: Gary Kasparov

Monday, January 25, 2010

I have little time to do anything constructive - by which I mean reading creative works rather than emails or student essays. In fact, I appear to have done little reading since Christmas. Last week, I calculated that I worked around 60 hours, of which only six or so can have involved sitting with a book or journal in front of me. I do have time, though, to dash off a couple of articles in the evening.

Gary Kasparov writes of "The Chess Master and the Computer." It rehearses old ground in the history of artificial intelligence (well, to me anyway, because my PhD thesis touched on the issue). The early artificial intelligence proponents saw a chess beating computer as the hallmark of human equivalence. But once Deep Blue defeated Gary Kasparov by calculating 200 million moves per second, it was realised that this had been a blind alley. Deep Blue may have won the battle against the Grandmaster, but they were using very different cognitive and electronic weaponry.

Chess lends itself to computational solutions because of the numbers involved in a chess match. As Kasparov notes, "The number of legal chess positions is 1040, the number of different possible games, 10120". To put it another way, a player looking eight moves ahead is presented with as many possible combinations as there are stars in the galaxy. Yet a good, human player will not even consider these permutations:
As for how many moves ahead a grandmaster sees, Russkin-Gutman makes much of the answer attributed to the great Cuban world champion José Raúl Capablanca, among others: "Just one, the best one." This answer is as good or bad as any other, a pithy way of disposing with an attempt by an outsider to ask something insightful and failing to do so. It's the equivalent of asking Lance Armstrong how many times he shifts gears during the Tour de France.
What is intriguing and novel in this essay written by a grandmaster is his observation of how computer chess seems to have affected the perception of how great humans play, when what it should have done is illustrated the narrowness of the computer's abilities:
The moment I became the youngest world chess champion in history at the age of twenty-two in 1985, I began receiving endless questions about the secret of my success and the nature of my talent. Instead of asking about Sicilian Defenses, journalists wanted to know about my diet, my personal life, how many moves ahead I saw, and how many games I held in my memory.

I soon realized that my answers were disappointing. I didn't eat anything special. I worked hard because my mother had taught me to.
Rather than accepting that Kasparov's talent was much about hard work, the journalists wanted there to be some underlying cognitive capacity that would have allowed them to make the leap from human to computer, equating the two. This is somewhat sad, as if the hallmark of human genius is to be able to count on more than two hands. It has also led to a marketplace in both players and computers. Ever more powerful, off-the-shelf computers are able to play as well as grandmasters in people's bedrooms, and the perception is that to beat the computer at its game of number crunching is somehow to have beaten the game of chess as well. But it is not so.

Kasparov - perhaps betraying some un-innoculated germ of Communist belief - sees this as symptomatic of a free market economy:
This is our last chess metaphor, then—a metaphor for how we have discarded innovation and creativity in exchange for a steady supply of marketable products. The dreams of creating an artificial intelligence that would engage in an ancient game symbolic of human thought have been abandoned. Instead, every year we have new chess programs, and new versions of old ones, that are all based on the same basic programming concepts for picking a move by searching through millions of possibilities that were developed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Like so much else in our technology-rich and innovation-poor modern world, chess computing has fallen prey to incrementalism and the demands of the market. Brute-force programs play the best chess, so why bother with anything else? Why waste time and money experimenting with new and innovative ideas when we already know what works? Such thinking should horrify anyone worthy of the name of scientist, but it seems, tragically, to be the norm. Our best minds have gone into financial engineering instead of real engineering, with catastrophic results for both sectors.

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Posted by Alistair at 5:28 pm


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