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In the End, Still a Pawn

May 06, 1997

Some day, perhaps this week, a computer will win a match against a human world chess champion. But this inevitability should hold no fear. As world champion Garry Kasparov and the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue face off today in the third game of their six-game rematch in New York City, little besides the spectator thrill of the game is really at stake.

The score in the match stands at one win each for man and machine. At the end of Sunday's game, a defeated Kasparov called the match "a different kind of chess." Indeed. The machine and its programming have been completely reworked since it lost to Kasparov last year--a struggle that the dramatic Russian grandmaster called "species defining."

But however sophisticated, Deep Blue is still a machine, a product of human ingenuity and creativity, like the bicycle, say, or Rubik's Cube. Deep Blue doesn't think. It does what its designers have told it to do in millions of lines of programming code. It crunches numbers. It runs scenarios and computes the statistical probability of success. The mammoth parallel processing power at the heart of the IBM RS/6000 gives Deep Blue the illusion of thought.

That scares us creatures of flesh and bone: the notion that something made of silicon and wires and born in a lab might someday be able to outperform us at such a task. Well, a machine will eventually out-compute us but not outthink us. None of its strengths can detract from the broad tapestry of skills, perceptions and thoughts that define what it is to be human. Deep Blue may beat Kasparov, but can it get a joke? Or contemplate the notion of justice? Uh-uh, checkmate.

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