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Now Who's the Pawn?

October 30, 2002

Anyone who's ever been confounded by a recalcitrant computer program that asked an unanswerable question, took way too long to execute a command or simply lost an entire afternoon's work to wreak revenge for some perceived slight should feel a warm twinge of satisfaction at the recent news out of Bahrain.

That's one of those oil-rich Arabian emirates where they have unlimited money and time to think of all sorts of silly things to do with it. So the king over there, Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, put up a million dollars to challenge a computer and a human to play chess. The winner got $800,000 unless it was a machine. It's good to be human.

Challenging a wily computer is something many humans feel they do daily at work for somewhat less money. It's a typical master-servant relationship: The human being, being human, never makes a mistake, and the machine, not being human and not having an effective spokesman, is blamed for all mistakes including spiling errers.

Chess is a fascinating game and has its sincerely devoted fans. Let's just say, however, that not many are moved to pound thunder sticks during the matches.

So the long-running human-versus-technology competition in Bahrain sneaked up on an inattentive world distracted by human-versus-human baseball and soccer playoffs.

The chess combatants were Vladimir Kramnik, reigning world champion, and Deep Fritz, a German computer program. The 27-year-old Kramnik made some beautiful moves. Fritz, capable of instantly contemplating millions of possible moves and potential consequences out a dozen or so more turns, countered quickly and deftly.

Kramnik won two games. Fritz won two games. Nail-biting time.

The competitors tied three times. Then, the whole thing was pronounced a draw with criticism focusing on Kramnik's mistakes, including a brilliant knight sacrifice that didn't fool Fritz.

Ah, but here's the rest of the story (written on a computer by a human): In 1997, another computer shockingly defeated world grandmaster Gary Kasparov, resulting in Kasparov's first-ever loss and a machine's first-ever victory. So, actually, humans could interpret one of their own tying a computer five years after losing to one as definite progress. And anyway, what could a computer do to get even, garlbe osme wrsd nad cut off this editorial before the....

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