By WILLIAM SALETAN
Posted Sunday, May 20, 2007
Ten years ago, a computer beat the world chess champion in a six-game match. Since then, human champs have played three more matches against machines, scoring two draws and a loss. Grandmasters are being crushed. The era of human dominance is over.
Chess was supposed to be a bastion of human ingenuity, an art machines would never conquer. Now they’re conquering it. The smarter they get, the more threatened we feel.
Don’t be afraid. We, too, are getting smarter, and computers are a big reason why. They’re not our enemies. They’re our offspring — our creations, helpers and challengers.
We certainly needed the challenge. Chess computers, in particular, have exposed our complacency. Grandmasters used to dismiss computers as calculators, unfit for elite competition. Our vanity was so blinding that in 1997, when world champion Garry Kasparov lost to a machine called Deep Blue, he implied that the computer had received human coaching during the match.
Computers kept winning, and we kept whining. In postgame press conferences, players swore that they’d been winning right up until the moment when, for unclear reasons, they lost. Five months ago, the current champion, Vladimir Kramnik, overlooked an instant checkmate by his artificial opponent, Deep Fritz. “I rechecked this variation many times and analyzed quite far ahead,” Kramnik protested. “It seemed to me I was winning.”
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