Monday, August 29, 2011

Chess Challenge

We earlier marveled at the proliferation, in our generation, of musical prodigies (performers, not composers, though).  In athletics as well, performance is just plain better than it ever was.

Ever since computers started whupping grandmasters, it has pretty much ruined the romance of the game -- much as similar technical developments scotched the potential vaudeville careers of mnemonic or calculating savants.  It’s a mug’s game, two alpha males knocking themselves out each to beat the other, when neither is as good as a machine.

Granted, the computers’ prowess is itself a human achievement.  These things didn't just drift in from Andromeda.  We built them, we programmed them, we told them what to do.  We invented the heuristics that allowed performance to evolve to the next step.  Only, at some point, emergent factors take over, and our invention kind of gets away from us.  “The equations were wiser than I was,” as Maxwell said of his own.  And these Big Blues and what have you  start to stick in everybody’s craw.

So, a proposal:   Duffers, of course, will keep just duffing along, for fun.  But at the highest levels of play, we need a new mission.  And this, not to beat each other up, but specifically to target the machines.   This will be to a large extent a collaborative, rather than a purely competitive enterprise.  The game will be purified of the boardside antics, knuckle-cracking and cigar-smoke-blowing and a radio receiver in the ear.  More like the Apollo program, of putting a man on the moon.  Which man, did not matter.  Instead, collectively, passionately-yet-dispassionately, study the cybernetic style of play, probe it, discover its shallow spots.   Then strike a blow for us bipeds, for the honor of -- well, the warrior, really.   Colossus delendus est !

~ ~ ~

And just how (you scoff) is such a development to come about?
Not in any way that we can imagine -- but then special relativity, quantum mechanics, and general relativity were unimaginable until they were born as fact.

Now -- it might be that chess is only somewhat less shallow than checkers (which fell to machines long ago), and that there is little room for improvement.  In which case, the contest isn’t interesting.   A hydraulic lift can heft more than any human weightlifter;  a computer beats humans within the current understanding of the game.
But it might be, that chess, as many say of Go, is deep indeed.   The way forward then would be to develop some entirely new strategy of play and lines of attack -- not necessarily stronger, in any meta-metric, than what we have now, but outside the ken of the computer.    The computers could start to lose.  Now, to keep the contest interesting, programmers would have to be forbidden from importing “the answers” into their programs:  it would be us against the cybernetic heuristics.   That is the only arena in which our Colossus may seem some sort of independent intelligence.  And if it eventually beats us then, um, somebody be ready to pull the plug.

[Update 22 Nov 2013]  Chess is now a compulsory subject in Indian schools, reports the NZZ:

In Indien, seit Viswanathan Anand im Jahr 2000 erstmals Weltmeister geworden ist, hat die Zahl der professionellen Schachspieler im Land rasant zugenommen. Das Spiel ist zu einem Pflichtfach in Schulen geworden.
«Viele Kinder können heute nicht mehr stillsitzen. Beim Schachspielen lernen sie, sich zu konzentrieren und strategisch zu denken»

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