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Hooray for chess computers

Thursday, January 23, 2014
Garry Kasparov in a duel with Deep Blue

When the IBM computer named “Deep Blue” eventually crushed World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in the 1997 rematch, many commentators considered the victory as “one of the most important events of the twentieth century.” 


That a computer, basically an electronic contraption, could be programmed to outplay the greatest chess player in the world seemed at the time quite inconceivable. But the unthinkable actually happened, and commentators began to speculate about the future of the world’s greatest mind game, that after centuries of development it would now lose its fascination and enter a period of decline.


As we now know, these predictions were no more than a shock reaction to the inevitable conquest of machine over man..


In their first match in 1996, Deep Blue stunned the champion by beating him in the first game. But Kasparov quickly adjusted his play to exploit the computer’s weakness in long-term strategic planning, where his judgment and intuition were able to trump the computer’s mechanical counting. Kasparov’s strategy paid off and he won the first encounter.


“Unfortunately,” said commentators on the clash, “the supremely confident Kasparov did not take Deep Blue seriously enough in the return match. A more deeply reprogrammed and perceptive Deep Blue shocked the champion, winning the match 3.5 to 2.5.”


As one IT expert explained, “with ever more powerful processors, silicon chess players developed the ability to calculate so far ahead that the distinction between short-term tactical calculations and long-term strategic planning became blurred.” 


At the same time, computer programmes began to exploit huge databases of games between grandmasters, using the results from human games to extrapolate what moves would have the highest chances of success.


Eventually it became clear to the experts that even the best human chess players would have little chance to do better than an occasional draw. Today, chess programmes have become so good that even grandmasters sometimes struggle to understand the logic behind some of their moves.


And it gets worse. According to one expert, “many commercially available computer programmes can be set to mimic the styles of top grandmasters to an extent that is almost uncanny.”


The happy outcome of all this is that chess, instead of being sorely wounded, has emerged with flying colours. In some ways, say the commentators, chess is as popular and successful today as at any point in the last decade. 


The game and the computer, in fact, now enjoy a happy marriage. “Chess lends itself very well to Internet play, and fans can follow top-level tournaments in real time, often with expert commentary.”


The fact is that technology has helped to thoroughly globalise the sport, enormously enhancing its enjoyment and the opportunities it provides for personal improvement.


Scientists now tell us that, in 50 years or so, “computers might be doing everything from driving taxis to performing routine surgery. Sooner than that, artificial intelligence will transform higher learning, potentially making a world-class university education broadly affordable even in poor developing countries. And, of course, there are more mundane but crucial uses of artificial intelligence everywhere, from managing the electronics and lighting in our homes to populating ‘smart grids’ for water and electricity, helping to monitor these and other systems to reduce waste.”


Because of the varied opportunities that computers provide, young and aspiring chess players now have the wherewithal for advancing their skills that an older generation never even dreamed about.


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