As world chess champion Garry Kasparov rallied from behind and stormed to victory last week over Deep Blue, the IBM computer that is the strongest inanimate challenger to human chess supremacy, the sanctity of human intelligence seemed to dodge a bullet. People remain the smartest entities on the planet - for a little while longer anyway.
Or so the prevailing sentiment would have it.
But for many cognitive scientists, computer experts and philosophers, the question is not: Which entity is more intelligent? Rather, it is: What is intelligence, anyway? The smart answer is: It depends on whom you ask.
Both Kasparov and his adviser on computers, Frederick Friedel, said they felt Deep Blue had begun to emanate signs of artificial intelligence, the first they ever had sensed from a machine.
“As it goes deeper and deeper, it displays elements of strategic understanding,” Friedel said of Deep Blue. “Somewhere out there, mere tactics are translating into strategy. This is the closest thing I’ve seen to computer intelligence. It’s a weird form of intelligence, the beginning of intelligence. But you can feel it. You can smell it.”
Herbert Simon, a professor of computer science, psychology and philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, concurred. Any computer thinks to some degree, he said, when it brings to bear the element of problem-solving he calls selectivity - that is, a sense of knowing where to look in its warehouse of information for its answer to a question.
Human thought, he said, consists of “first, a great capacity for recognition, and second, a capability for selective research.”
Deep Blue has to be considered a thinker, he said, because along with its colossal ability “to spin its wheels” - the brute-force calculation which is the traditional strength of computers - it also has a sophisticated evaluation system.
In other words, Deep Blue, like a human being, does not have to search out each and every possible chess move to discover the best option; it has the ability, programmed in its software, to recognize useless possibilities and discard them along the way, a function that increases its efficiency.
This, of course, is what a human chess player does; Kasparov cannot match the computer’s searching speed, but with his intuition and experience, he does not have to. He recognizes fruitlessness instinctively.
It was in 1957 that Simon, whose lifelong research has focused on the human thought process and who won a Nobel Prize in economics in 1978, predicted that a computer would be the world chess champion within a decade; in that service, he helped design a computer program that tried to emulate the thought processes of a grandmaster.
He proved to be wrong, and today he says he did not understand it would be brute force as opposed to selectivity that would bring a chess computer to an equal footing with men and women. But that does not diminish the accomplishment of Deep Blue, he said, which, with its powerful amalgam of brute force and selectivity, is not unlike what humans do, if different in the ratio of its elements.
There are different types of thinking, he added, “but I would call what Deep Blue does thinking.”
Baloney, said John R. Searle, a philosophy professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “The Rediscovery of the Mind,” which argues against the possibility of mechanical thought.
“From a purely mathematical point of view,” Searle said, “chess is a trivial game because there’s perfect information about it. For any given position, there’s an optimal move; it’s solvable. It’s not like football or war.
“It’s a great game for us because our minds can’t see the solution, but the fact that we will build machines that can do it better than we can is no more important than the fact that we can build pocket calculators that can add and subtract better than we can.”
Searle scoffed at Friedel’s sense that the calculating power of Deep Blue had begun to evince the feel of an intelligent being.
“I could say the same thing about my pocket calculator,” he said. “In the early days, I could outwit it. Divide 10 by 3, then multiply that by 3 again. You wouldn’t get 10 again; you’d get 9.999999. Now, they have tricks to solve that. But in order to get human intelligence, you’ve got to be conscious. Does the computer worry about its next move? Does it worry about whether its wife is bored by the length of the games?”
Several cognitive scientists said Deep Blue’s victory in the opening game of the recent match told more about chess than about intelligence.
“It was a watershed event, but it doesn’t have to do with computers becoming intelligent,” said Douglas Hofstadter, a professor of computer science at Indiana University and author of several books about human intelligence, including “Godel, Escher, Bach,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 with its witty argument about the connecting threads of intellect in various fields of expression.
“They’re just overtaking humans in certain intellectual activities that we thought required intelligence. My God, I used to think chess required thought. Now, I realize it doesn’t. It doesn’t mean Kasparov isn’t a deep thinker, just that you can bypass deep thinking in playing chess, the way you can fly without flapping your wings.”
Those who ascribe to the theory that machines are just machines that always will be apprenticed to human masters tend to view the hoopla over the chess match and the worry over the ascension of the machine as, well, “crazy,” to use the word of Berkeley’s Searle.
“It’s just a hunk of junk that somebody’s designed,” he said of Deep Blue.
Paul Saffo, a technology expert at the Institute for the Future, a think tank in Menlo Park, Calif., more or less agrees.
“People who fear machines don’t need to lose any sleep just yet,” he said. “The question I’d ask, now that this Rubicon has been passed, is ‘what’s the new arbitrary measure?’ Maybe it’s a computer that plays go,” - the ancient Japanese board game that has yet to be conquered by a machine - “or a computer that can fill in an IRS form without getting an audit.”
Hofstadter has another idea. He says it is not impossible that a machine might one day learn from experiences and feel things as humans do. But in the meantime, that is still what separates us and them.
In “Godel, Escher, Bach” he held chess-playing to be a creative endeavor with the unrestrained threshold of excellence that pertains to arts such as musical composition or literature. Now, he says, the computer gains of the last decade have persuaded him that chess is not as lofty an intellectual endeavor as music and writing; they require a soul.
“I think chess is cerebral and intellectual,” he said, “but it doesn’t have deep emotional qualities to it, mortality, resignation, joy, all the things that music deals with. I’d put poetry and literature up there, too. If music or literature were created at an artistic level by a computer, I would feel this is a terrible thing.”
MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.