Human beings have a pretty high opinion of themselves. We justify this hubris by telling ourselves that we were created in God’s image or that evolution has immaculately honed our minds and bodies through millions of years of natural selection, but for all of humanity’s triumphs, all of its inborn talent and potential, we’re far from perfect. On a practical level, we seem to fully realize this -- it’s the reason we make tools and invent machines -- but on an emotional level, it disgusts us to think that anything, especially those things we ourselves created, could possibly surpass us. But for all the blustering confidence with which we assert our superiority, in any contest that pits man against machine, the machines will always win in the long run. You may beat them once, or even twice, as famed chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov did to the computer Deep Thought in 1989, but it’s only a matter of time before they outpace you; the speed of human evolution is simply no match for that of technology.
In fiction, these situations are nothing new and rarely end well for us mere mortals, as in the American tall tale of John Henry, the 19th century steel-drivin’-man who won out against his new steam powered replacement only to die from the exertion moments later. In reality, though, these themes rarely play out as dramatically as Kasparov’s bout with Deep Thought. A big part of why the two-game sudden death match, taking place at the New York Academy of Fine Arts, felt so momentous was due to the nature of the game itself. Dating as far back as 600 AD, the rules of chess are simple and well defined, thus perfectly suited for programming a computer to play, but those basic rules also generate an amazing amount of possible scenarios that would seem to require creativity, lateral thinking and complicated strategy -- things long thought of as the exclusive domain of mankind -- to truly master. Having a machine compete and win amongst human players had long been a goal of scientists, who saw it as the ultimate test of a computer’s “intelligence”, and with good reason. As the New York Times put it, “In chess, the best human beings and the best machines possess capabilities both similar enough to allow meaningful competition and diverse enough to insure [sic] that the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.” If Kasparov won, humanity could go on thinking of itself as nature’s most wondrous creation; if he lost, it would be forced to reconsider how special that human spark actually is.
On one side of the board was Kasparov, the 26-year-old phenomenon from Azerbaijan, then part of the Soviet Union, who had seized the world championship title four years before and was already being widely declared the greatest player in the history of the game. On the other was Deep Thought, or at least an interface connected to the actual machine designed by graduate student Feng-hsiung Hsu and a small team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and, later, at IBM. It was named for the supercomputer charged with determining the ultimate answer to the question of life, the universe and everything in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which is “42” by the way). As the eyes of the world watched in anticipation, an unusual thing for a chess match (but then again this was no usual chess match), Kasparov won both games handily, and that seemed to be that -- at least for the moment.
Before the match, Kasparov was confident, bordering on arrogant, about his chances of beating the computer, famously claiming he was stepping up to the challenge in order to “protect the human race,” and his easy victory only inflated his belief that machines were no match for the human mind. Not everyone had dismissed the idea of a computer holding its own against the best chess players in the world, though. Indeed, most theorists and scientists believed it was inevitable, including Feng-hsiung Hsu and company, who redoubled their efforts to create a machine capable of beating Kasparov. The key to their success would be ramping up the “brute force” computing power, enabling the machine to evaluate ever more positions and potential moves per second. In 1996, their new player, bankrolled by IBM’s deep pockets and nicknamed Deep Blue, was ready to take on the Russian master. The new machine was able to analyze 100 million positions per second and gave its human opponent a respectable run for his money, including winning one game, before going on to lose the six-game match. Energized by the improvement, Deep Blue’s team of computer scientists immediately set about overhauling the machine, doubling its speed, and after only 13 short months, they were ready for a rematch.
The outcome of the match, which Deep Blue won 3 ½ to 2 ½ (with one point being assigned for a win, a half for a draw and zero for a loss), shocked everyone, Kasparov most of all. In a fit of pique after losing the second game of the six-game match, Kasparov accused IBM of cheating by having human grandmasters feeding moves to the machine, but no evidence ever surfaced that this actually transpired. He demanded another rematch, but IBM declined, deactivating Deep Blue and donating it to the Smithsonian, a move which gave the illusion of credence to Kasparov’s claims. Sour grapes aside, the damage had been done. On the mental battlefield that is chess, man had been bested by machine.
Kasparov retired from chess in 2005, turning his attention to political organizing and activism in his adopted home of Moscow, where he’s been a continual thorn in the side of hardline conservative president Vladimir Putin. Deep Blue may be a museum piece now, but its victory inspired a whole new generation of chess-playing computers, which have proved so skilled that it’s no longer a question of whether a computer can beat a human player, but if a human can trump a computer. “It's almost the end of the story for chess in the sense that matches between chess machines and grand masters are becoming less interesting because it's so difficult for the human grand masters to compete successfully,” says Deep Thought/Deep Blue programmer Murray Campbell, who moved Deep Blue’s pieces at the historic 1997 match, “They're even taking relatively dramatic steps like giving handicaps to computers, making them play the game with a pawn less or playing the game with less time.” Less than a decade after Deep Thought’s crushing defeat, the technology had developed enough to turn the tables on the best chess player that ever lived, while man, evolving at a glacial pace, has failed to keep up. In the end, though Deep Blue’s achievements are ultimately human achievements (we did build the damn thing), further developments in artificial intelligence may eventually lead to us creating our own successors. Hopefully our new robot overlords don’t have the same enormous egos we humans do.