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Thursday, January 30, 2003
Do Androids Dream of Electric Pawns?

Addenda to my earlier post on computers and chess: Oxblog's Josh Chafetz has made some similar points in a longer post:

Chess is precisely not the kind of environment that makes human intelligence unique. The day is still, I think, a long way off that computers will be able competently to navigate the real world, because the real world does not have a set of easily understandable rules, and real world information is far from perfect. Real-world decision-making involves extrapolating/guessing missing information from present information. It often means having to operate in the absence of even an educated guess. It means not knowing what rules the other actors are using to guide their behavior. Indeed, it involves not knowing whether they are using rules at all.

I think Josh is mostly right here, except in his reference to humans having an advantage in being able "to operate in the absence of even an educated guess." Humans don't always have a big edge over computers in this, precisely because, like conputers, we don't do it very well. We do have a vast advantage over computers in real world situations mostly for two reasons:

  • The rules of chess are few in number and easy to list, therefore fairly easy to incorporate into a complex program. The rules used by humans to operate in and understand the world, most of them so obvious to us as adults that we never think about them, are innumerable and probably impossible to list comprehensively.

  • Humans are extremely good at extrapolating from limited, sometimes contradictory, information. We think nothing of recognizing a familiar face, even seen only from the side and with unfamiliar clothes and hair, or recgnizing a familiar tune, even played incorrectly on an instrument we've never heard paly that song. Computers really can't do such things.

The current match, like all human-computer matches, gives a perfect example. The actual moves are played by a programmer. The task that only a handful of human geniuses can perform, finding moves strong enough to compete against Kasparov, is done by the computer. The task that any person of average intelligence could be taught in a few hours, picking up and moving the pieces, has to be done by a human, because nobody knows how to program a robot that can do it.

Calpundit suggests that interest in computer chess can be traced back to legendary scientist Alan Turing, one of the founders of computer science and modern cryptography, who also had an interest in chess (and in young working class men, but that's another discussion). As a historical note, there's actually a history of chess-playing 'machines' that predates Turing. In the 19th Century, a showman named Maelzel toured Europe and America with a machine that purportedly could play chess. It was a fraud, of course, but intrigued enough people at the time to be the subject of several pamphlets and a celebrated essay by Poe. Poe got some things wrong - he oddly believed that if you could design a machine that played chess at all, it would be trivial to go ahead and design one that played perfectly - but the essay is still a model of clear reasoning from the genius who created the detective story genre.