Day 313: The Robots Take Chess… Then The World!

originally published November 8, 2012

I have stated in the past that I am not tremendously knowledgeable about chess. I am, however, always on the lookout for evidence of the inevitable robot (or possibly super-monkey) uprising that will unseat humanity at the top of our planet’s hierarchy. Perhaps the most publicized such evidence just happens to be tied to the world of chess.

Just as jai alai is a sport for the athletically inclined, and cricket is a pastime for people who own really clean white clothing, chess is the go-to game for the intellectually gifted. Players strategize several moves ahead, calculating probability and reading their opponents’ behavior like a seasoned gambler. I learned the basics of the game, but never wrapped my brainstem around the nuances. But then, I’m no robot.

M.I.T. student Richard Greenblatt, who was later credited as the founder of the computer hacker community, developed the first chess program to be pitted against a human player, back in 1966. He called it Mac Hack VI, because a local psychedelic rock band had already taken the name ‘The Dick Greenblatt Experience’. Mac Hack VI could evaluate ten positions per second, which isn’t much by today’s standards but could still whomp the pants off any human brain.

Greenblatt’s ideal human counterpart was Dr. Hubert Dreyfus, a philosophy professor at M.I.T. Doc Dreyfus had written a book about the limitations of computers, claiming even the greatest of them couldn’t beat a ten-year-old at chess. He was the ideal doubter to face off against the machine.

The match was apparently “wonderful”, with “great moments of drama and disaster”, according to one witness. How it wasn’t televised will forever remain a mystery, at least until one remembers that it was a chess match. Dreyfus had a chance to nab the computer’s queen at one point, but Mac Hack VI held on and won.

Up in Illinois, students at Northwestern University were gearing up to conquer the chess world with their own program, which they inventively called ‘Chess’. Larry Atkin, David Slate and Keith Gorlen get the credit for this fancy little arrangement of zeroes and ones. Chess 4.5 became the first program to win a tournament, besting its feeble meat-sack opponents at the 4th Paul Masson chess tournament in Saratoga, California in 1976.

Over the next couple of years, Chess version 4.5 continued to impress, achieving a rating of 2040 in 1978 after the Twin Cities Open in Minneapolis. A rating of 2040 means nothing to me. For comparison, Mac Hack VI hit a rating of 1529 at its peak, and the expert whom Chess 4.5 conquered to walk away with the 1977 Minnesota Open Championship was rated 2016.

So, the program was good. I guess that’s the message here.

(it knew how to ‘rock the squarey canvas’ as they probably say in the chess world)

In 1968, chess pro and founder of the Mind Sports Olympiads (an article in themselves, I’m sure) David Levy made a bet with four beacons of the artificial intelligence community that no computer would defeat him within the next decade. In April 1977, Levy was introduced to Chess 4.5. This shit was on.

Levy won. He faced Chess 4.7 in August of 1978, his last match before the decade-long bet ran out. The computer grabbed a draw and even a win, but the match (which is played out in six games) went to Levy. He collected his bet, which was no doubt put towards the development of some form of intellectual pursuit.

In 1981, humanity’s doom inched a little closer. Cray Blitz, the brain-child of Robert Hyatt, Harry Nelson and Albert Gower, became the first program to defeat a chess master (which is, I guess, like a chess Jedi) when it bested Joe Sentef in Mississippi.

Harvard tried to alleviate our collective fear of working in computer-run slave mines when it organized the Harvard Cup Man vs. Computer Chess Challenge in 1989. The competition ran for six consecutive years, and each time the human race came out on top. Those were such innocent days, full of hope and optimism. Maybe the robots wouldn’t take over. Maybe we’d be spared.

Then along came 1996. The most famous chess match in history took place in Philadelphia, matching IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue up against World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov. If you want the gritty details, every single move of every game is transcribed on Wikipedia. If you feel so inclined, you could probably re-create the drama in your own home. Invite your friends!

(serve refreshments!)

Deep Blue won once and the two combatants  finished twice in a draw. Kasparov came away with three wins and the human race breathed a collective sigh of relief. We’d all seen Terminator 2; we all knew that Judgment Day could be right around the corner, in 1997.

Unfortunately, that was the year of the rematch. After five games, each player had won once and they had just gone through three consecutive draws. It was dead even coming in to the last game.

Deep Blue kicked ass. The greatest chess player in the world had been conquered by a computer.

Kasparov claimed there had been human intervention, but the IBM team denied it. He insisted it was unfair that the IBM team could study hundreds of Kasparov’s past games to ascertain his style and tactics, but he was not permitted to do the same with Deep Blue. Kasparov demanded a rematch. IBM dismantled the machine instead.

Was the match fair? Who knows… but that wasn’t the end of man vs. machine competition.

Vladimir Kramnik, the Champ who succeeded Kasparov, finished in a draw against a computer called Deep Fritz in 2002. The following year a $1 million prize was offered in the match between Kasparov and Deep Junior, a computer programmed by a pair of Israelis. This match ended in a draw as well. Kramnik faced off against Deep Fritz once again in 2006 and didn’t even win a game.

A program called Pocket Fritz reached the grandmaster level in chess competition in 2009 (I think that’s the level where they give you a free hat). That program operated, not on a supercomputer like Deep Blue or a room-sized unit like Mac Hack VI, but on a cell phone.

Without doing any research into any other facet of computers and/or robotics, I think the evidence is fairly solid that our days are numbered. Our smartest humans cannot match the brains of even a cell phone now. Let’s not forget that Ken Jennings, the man who won a gazillion consecutive games of Jeopardy, had his brain’s ass handed to him by Watson, another product of the IBM conspiracy.

The clock is ticking people. It’s time to get the super-monkeys on our side.

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