We beat Kasparov

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
13 February, 2017
Editorial: 71
Fecha de publicación original: 13 mayo, 1997

Date of publication 13/05/1997. Editorial 71.

Wonder is the daughter of ignorance

So, Deep Blue has given Kasparov a good thrashing. For many of us who are keen on chess (I’m one of them) it’s as if the the machine’s victory were our own. Let’s face it, that’s what it was like. We gave the champion of the world, no less, what he deserved. However, he’ll still have to bite the dust two or three times more, before we move on to another historic moment in time in the relationship between man and machine. Just as the computer developed by IBM works on parallel processors, the chess games of the cybernetic summits in the century to come will be played by groups of Grand Masters playing in parallel against a discreet portable PC on the other side of the board. To start off with we will beat it, (us human beings that is). But not for long. What was already written in silicone a long time ago will happen quicker than it takes to castle: we will impose ourselves (us machines, of course) and we will have to find other areas for a new challenge. Because, in fact, that is all we are doing: playing against ourselves with our own cultural products.

The machine, above all the computer, is, after all, the latest bodily extension of our recent evolution. The fact that we have beaten Kasparov, without so much as making use of artificial intelligence, only goes to show how far we have got in the evolutionary process. But it also tells us a lot of other things. For example, just how half-witted a technological society can be which, on the one hand, unceasingly innovates and stuffs these innovations into every orifice (naturally or surgically) while, on the other, it looks on with horror at these same innovations as if they were produced by some other species.

The media, in particular, have had a grand old time with the games between Kasparov and the dear old machine. They have unashamedly used every cliché and worn-out phrase in the book. From things like “the infuriating way the non-human rival plays” (Freud could have added another 15 volumes to his complete works based on that little phrase alone), to things like “the coldness with which the machine uses its brute force”. As the old saying goes: Behind every great machine there must be….someone!

Nevertheless, the phrases I like best are some of the gems which Kasparov himself came up with for the consumption of humans threatened by the advance of the machines. Especially, because they sound as if they have come from the depths of time. To prove my point, just imagine that they were uttered by a troglodyte hit on the head by a stone chucked by a hand that until then had only been able to move its fingers enough to cling onto the branches of trees and pick fruit, or any of the other objects (swords, arrows, catapults, canons, cavalry, trains, planes, automatic cash points etc.) that followed:

  • Kasparov after getting a smack on the head: “I think Deep Blue is too flexible sometimes”.
  • Kasparov after being stoned a few more times and having been unable to avoid all the shots: “The machine doesn’t get tired and I can’t afford to make a mistake”.
  • Kasparov sprawled at the foot of the machine, having just discovered that he has a considerable crack on the skull: “I don’t want anyone to interpret this as a definitive defeat for man at the hands of the machine”.

As far as the press was concerned, I loved the way they popularised the phrase “stupid silicone” to describe Deep Blue, in reference to the material that chips are made of. What one should say, in fact, is that stupid silicone is as stupid as a grain of sand. But then, many grains of sand in our minds conjure up a beach or a desert, which are not quite so stupid. And what about standing on all those grains of silicone looking out to sea? In any case, stupid silicone is closely related to silica which began to be used by some individuals thousands of years ago and which, at the end of the experiment, has made it possible for a man to sit down opposite a computer with a board between them covered with wooden pieces. Curious, isn’t it?

This chess game seems to have provided the perfect excuse for bringing us down intellectually appealing to the instincts we had when we were still tree-borne. And this, on the part of the same people who would happily go out of their way to put machines into their bodies which can pump the blood around them at an exact speed and if they detect an arrhythmia they give off a precise electric shock that restores the heart to its normal tick-tock. Although it might be hard for them to believe, machines are no more than the men who made them. All these hackneyed images of man confronted by the machine remind me of the murderer who giving evidence before the judge said: “I didn’t kill her, Your Honour, it was the bullet that came out of the barrel of the gun”.

The greater part of human evolution has taken place outside our bodies, in the way that we have modified nature with cultural tools of all types: stones, axes, the spoken and written word, tales, rites, myths, artefacts, cities, machines, computers. All these are us. They are our prostheses, like the TV which allows us to watch the game between Kasparov and the machine which was made by a lot of little Kasparovs with different skills. The problem isn’t the prostheses, but in whose hands they lie and whether we are capable of distributing them in an equitable fashion. This historic challenge of the appropriation of our own cultural evolution is reaching a crucial phase in Internet. Noam Chomsky put it very well on a recent visit to Majorca: “If we do nothing about it, Internet and cable will become monopolised by commercial mega-corporations in ten or fifteen years’ time. People don’t realise that there is the possibility of keeping these technological instruments in their hands rather than leaving them to big companies. If this is to be achieved, co-ordination between groups that are opposed to this monopolization is necessary, and technology must be used creatively, intelligently and with initiative.”

The others, groups of people who view all this with a technophobia of almost circus-like proportions are bodies which remain in antiquity, as Eduardo Haro Tecglen said. Regarding Kasparov’s game, the only certain conclusion we can extract from this ambivalence between the constant appropriation of the machine –our culture– and the fleeing from a humanity defined by the absolute exclusion of all the cultural features that explain it, is that IBM’s shares are on the up and up, lots more computers to play chess on are bound to be sold, and Internet has proved itself to be the digital chessboard par excellence. But, basically, there is much more to it than that.