It’s Not Checkers

It’s been more than twenty years since the IBM computer Deep Blue beat Grandmaster Garry Kasparov in a six game challenge of chess. Now, a few decades into a reality where something we’ve created can beat us at a game of strategy, we’re all pretty sure we’re only a few decades away from being enslaved by machines. I’m more skeptical. Or more optimistic I guess, depending on which way you look at it. But there’s quite a bit to learn from the observations you can gather from paying attention to the evolution of machine chess. And not just about chess.

A truly world class chess playing human can look a half dozen or so moves into the future and reasonably predict where the most relevant pieces will be. A computer can go dozens. So the thing that makes a computer better than a human at chess is not in fact it’s ability to ponder consequences to itself and infer the intention of its opponent. What makes the machine better is simply a function of how many simultaneous calculations it can do relative to what a human can. And how much it can remember about the variables of moves it considers. For a computer, that’s all of them. For a human, it’s something less than that.

One of the things you’ll hear, if you pay attention to chess is that commentators will often say things like, “That’s a move no human would make.” Because chess computers not only see more of the future, they care less about the past and present. A computer doesn’t worry if the move looks crazy. And it doesn’t concern itself with how harsh the criticism will be if that move fails. It simply sees that it will likely work. And it makes the move.

The human it’s playing is often so dismayed by the abnormality of the move that they get flustered. And they make mistakes. And even quit. That’s what happened to Kasparov. He conceded a game after a bug in the program made the computer do something stupid. The Grandmaster wrongly assumed it was genius. So he quit. The computer is not bogged down by the troublesome human burdens of risk aversion, doubt or shame. And so for the most inhuman of reasons, the computer is better at winning chess matches against humans than other humans are.

There is one part of chess that computers aren’t better at than humans though. It’s the the first dozen or so moves. What’s called the opening. In fact, computer chess programs are so bad at computing the opening they don’t do it. Because the end outcome is so distant and the variables are near infinite, they won’t even try. Instead it will use a reference database of known openings instead. Because the openings chess players use are some variation of the known openings that humans have learned work most effectively over 15 centuries playing chess. Because even the most powerful computer in the world is no match for the collective learnings of our species. So in that respect, they imitate us.

There’s a reason we’ve been playing chess for as long as we have. There are so many parallels to life. How a computer needs to play it, is one of them. It’s very easy to be bold and uncompromising when you are just a little shrewder than some of the others in the room. And you started the game with the advantage that others handed to you. Say, if you were given a real estate empire. And all you had to do, was punch the guy across the table hard enough and long enough that he conceded that you had the stronger hand. And that you made the rules. You could even be outrageous. Knock people’s foundations out from under them. Get them flustered and outraged. Make them fold when perhaps, they didn’t have to.

And you might find, that gives you success.

But if you start something brand new, for instance, like take on the responsibility of governing the country that’s been most effectively governed for longer than any democracy in the history of governing, perhaps you may want to consider how some of the men who did it before you chose to act. See how they treated people. Practice the same disciplines they did. Follow some of the norms. You might find then, like the computer did, that several centuries of human consciousness is not in fact, less savvy than you are at something so very important.

And perhaps then you might find that you can drain the swamp the way it so needs to be drained. Because those who have given you the power you so sought will fear you less than what they fear they’ll find at the bottom when you drain it.

Or you can go on flubbing the opening. And lose early and often. Because computer chess tells us one other thing about it that is a powerful analogy to life. The scoring systems show that it’s almost never a glaring error that loses the game. It’s the compilation of smaller ones that ultimately erodes one player’s stronger position until they’ve got nothing left.

Like an illegal travel ban that no one needed. Or a healthcare plan that couldn’t be passed. Or a wall that your people don’t care about paid for by funds that your people don’t have.



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