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No. 1242:
Kasparov and Deep Blue

Today, we wonder what Deep Blue was telling us. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've been getting into an odd conversation over the past few days. I've been asking, "Was Deep Blue's victory over Kasparov significant or not?" The answers divide sharply.


Chess is, after all, a form of war. The word comes from the Persian cry, Shah Mat! -- The king is dead. Shah Mat has mutated into Check Mate, and the word Shah has become Chess.

Now a machine has finally beaten a human in this war of mind and will. But Kasparov's fate was sealed years ago. Computers have been working their way through the ranks of chess players. A computer could beat an average tournament player by 1966. It was only a matter of time before one caught up with a champion.

So back to that matter of war. Chess is a game of guile and strategy. Chess means putting your emotional engines out of sight and choosing moves with cold calculation. In the end, Kasparov's cool cracked. He angrily resigned -- charging, at first, that IBM had let a human call the moves. I doubt anything of the kind, just because the computer's eventual victory was predictable.

Two generations ago, Alan Turing gave us an important thought model for all this. Turing said, suppose you go into a room with a keyboard and a monitor. You type in questions and receive answers. Then you try to determine whether the answers are being given by a human or by a machine. Ever since then, we've said that a computer which can't be told from a human passes the Turing test.

Most of us have assumed that no one could ever create a Turing Machine because that veers close to creating sentient intelligence. Here the argument over Deep Blue heats up because of Kasparov's initial belief that he was dealing with humans. Deep Blue really did pass the Turning Test as far as Kasparov was concerned.

That's why I think this strange little chess game was significant -- not because the outcome was a surprise, but because Kasparov thought Deep Blue might be human.

This takes on huge significance in my business of engineering education. All my adult life, I've taught forms of applied math -- how to solve certain differential equations and extract information from them. Now, in the last decade, that knowledge has been increasingly taken over by computers. Today's student might write six lines of instruction to a math-solver program and instantly get what we once would've been proud to call a doctoral dissertation.

Like Deep Blue, we've seen that coming. Yet we're still surprised when we see it actually happen. These absolutely predictable changes in the role of the computer are a wake-up call. They remind us that our identity, and our purpose on this earth, are being redefined. They tell me that, if I fancy myself no more than an intellectual gladiator, I too will lose in the coliseum. I must find some better role than that -- in the life I live.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

McFadden, R. D., Inscrutable Conqueror: Deep (RS/6000 SP). New York Times, NEW YORK REPORT, Mon. May 12, 1997, pp. A1 & A14.

Weber, B., Swift and Slashing, Computer Topples Kasparov. New York Times, NEW YORK REPORT, Mon. May 12, 1997, pp. A1 & A14.

Zuckerman, L., The Virtual Champion: Not Even a Bleep of Joy. New York Times, NEW YORK REPORT, Mon. May 12, 1997, pp. A1 & A14.

Byrne, R., How One Champion Is Chewed Up Into Small Bits by Another. New York Times, NEW YORK REPORT, Mon. May 12, 1997, pp. A1 & A14.

For more on the Kasparov vs. Deep Blue match, see the website

For an earlier take on chess competition between human and machine, see Episode 481.