Garry Kasparov Lost a Chess Match to a Supercomputer: So What?
COMMENTARY: Engineers at IBM managed to develop a machine that outwitted the greatest player in the history of chess, but the fact remains that humans will always be able to do things that a computer cannot

UCSD Guardian Opinion
May 19, 1997

Eight days ago, the chess world reeled with the news that international champion Garry Kasparov had lost his match against IBM's supercomputer, Deep Blue. Resigning after only 19 moves, Kasparov left the board visibly distressed, waving his arms at his assistants.

Newspapers and television stations worldwide called Deep Blue's victory the definitive triumph of machine over man.

The chess match, whose $1.1 million purse was underwritten by IBM, was actually a rematch. The trusty pair of chess fiends first faced each other last year, with Kasparov soundly defeating Deep Blue in five games. There was one major difference between the two matches: Deep Blue was upgraded during the interim -- Garry Kasparov was not.

Kasparov -- sometimes called "the Michael Jordan of chess" -- has been a horribly sore loser since last week's astonishing defeat. He accused the IBM team of programming the computer specifically to beat him. He also complained that he really didn't feel like playing, and thus was an easy target for any opponent -- not just Deep Blue.

Quite honestly, if a computer kicked my tarkus, I'd probably react the same way. However, to blame the computer for such a poor showing wasn't the best way for Kasparov to save face.

His reaction is one that is totally human. It is something we should understand. Computers do not have an ego, an id or a superego. Instead of controlling their own destiny, computers' "thoughts" are dictated by programmers and users. Kasparov, like everyone else, should realize there is no shame in being defeated by a machine that was programmed by other human beings. Besides, how many of us are ashamed that computers can do basic arithmetic much faster than we can?

Computers are merely tools -- terrifically powerful tools, but tools nonetheless. Many of us use the computer more than any other type of machine. At the office, people mock me for using the computer for everything -- from writing a paper to searching the Internet for how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop. (By the way, it takes three licks.)

However, people who talk about how much more intelligent computers are than humans are making a fundamental mistake. One member of the Deep Blue team of programmers said, "We on the IBM Deep Blue team are indeed very proud that we've played a role in this historic event."

Wait a minute, an historical event? What was so historical about this event? To say that computers are now superior to people is simply ludicrous. A computer can easily beat me in chess, even when the program is set in ultra-beginner mode. Does that mean that the computer is better at life than I am? Of course not -- it just means that it has been programmed to execute all the moves and rules of chess flawlessly, something I can never hope to do.

Deep Blue's greatest advantage was that it was programmed to recall almost instantly any possible move from any position on the board. It also had the knowledge of several chess grandmasters in its data banks. The enormity of Deep Blue's resources was a key factor in its success.

Ultimately, the fixation of the media, the public and Deep Blue's builders and programmers on the power of computers does not give enough credit to the tremendous strength of human beings. While Kasparov's defeat was not a fluke, it doesn't accurately reflect the sheer number of advantages man has over machine.

One of the most important differences between man and the machines that he has built: People can feel -- computers can't. To the people who think that being an emotionless automaton is beneficial, I'd like to remind them of the many little things in life that no computer would understand.

No computer could compose a piece of music like Bach's Invention Number 13, write a play like Shakespeare's Hamlet nor lead a nation like any President of the United States (even Ronald Reagan). A computer would have no use for walking down a beach, feeling the waves wash over its feet as it watches the sun set in a glorious blaze of light. A computer also could not experience the thrill of flying through a triple corkscrew on a roller coaster at 60 miles per hour, smelling a flower on a bright spring day or thousands of other things that most people take for granted.

Need I point out that a computer certainly isn't writing this commentary?

The clich "To err is human" is very true. Computers do not make mistakes (usually), but their human programmers do. Moreover, the mistakes that computers do make pale in comparison to those made by humans; crime, disease and war are very real and very serious human problems. However, it is in this mire and muck that mankind's greatest ability emerges: the ability to adapt and grow to overcome adversity.

Besides not being able to adapt to adversity, computers could also not appreciate the struggle that is the human condition. Their only "concerns" (if we can really call them that) are what they are programmed to do by humans. If a computer did not have a task to perform, it would do nothing. Compare this to most humans who use only 10 percent of their brain capacity, yet are able to spend their entire lives in thought. With computers, there is no motivation to explore new worlds, to better themselves, to ask why it exists or to please others.

The "historic" revolution wrought by Deep blue also falls way short of another mark -- the achievements of human athletes. I'd love to see a computer dunk a basketball like Michael Jordan or do a triple lutz like Katarina Witt. I imagine it will be many years before a computer can perfect throwing a spitball toward home plate or throwing a perfect spiral to a wide receiver.

Happily there is a solution to our problem should the day come when a computer can knock down a 7-10 split: We can all do to the computer what Kasparov suggests and "tear it to pieces."

When Ryan isn't defending humanity against the encroachment of machines, he can be reached at rtolson@ucsd.edu.