Devlin's Angle

May 1997

Clash of the chess titans

On 3 May, in a hall in Manhattan's Equitable Center in New York, the two most powerful chess players in the world will begin the first in a series of six games to see who is the best of the best.

One player will walk into the room looking the picture of health, having been training for the event for months, with a mixture of running, swimming, weight training, and other physical exercises -- as well as studying past chess games and playing chess against a computer opponent.

The other player, a 2,800 pound giant, arrived a week ago in four 7-foot high moving crates delivered on a 16-wheel truck.

The first player is the Russian Grandmaster Gary Kasparov. The other player is Deep Blue, a special-purpose chess-playing computer designed and built by IBM. (The name Deep Blue is a derivation of the familiar term Big Blue, used to refer to IBM.)

Kasparov was born in Baku, the capital of the Russian republic Azerbaidzhan, in 1963. Since 1985, he has been the World Chess Champion.

Deep Blue was developed at IBM's research facility in Yorktown Heights in upper New York State, under the guiding eye of an IBM scientist called Joe Hoane.

The last time these two titans clashed, in February last year, Kasparov lost the first game, won the second, drew games three and four, and won the final two. Man triumphed over machine. (See the March, 1996 Devlin's Angle.)

Chastened, the team from Big Blue took their prodigy back to the labs and spent several months souping it up for this year's rematch. The new model has 256 dedicated chess chips operating in parallel, as against 192 last year, and is claimed to be twice as fast as its predecessor. It can analyze 200 million chess positions in a single second. (A human Grandmaster averages about two a minute.)

Who will win this time round? Well, we'll know the answer to that question soon enough.

A more interesting question, to my mind, is this: If Kasparov loses, what does it tell us about the human race, about computers, and about the future of intelligent life on the planet? Is Kasparov right when he says, of the coming match, "It's about the supremacy of human beings over machines in purely intellectual fields. It's about defending human superiority in an area that defines human beings."

As he psyches himself up for the match, it is hardly surprising that Kasparov views the issue in that way. But wait a minute. Were it not for Kasparov, we would almost certainly already be at the stage where computers rule the world in chess -- it seems clear that Kasparov is the only person alive who stands any chance at all against Deep Blue. And even if Kasparov wins this series, it will most likely be only a year or two before some "Deeper Blue" will be able to beat any human opponent, Kasparov included.

I view the outcome in exactly the opposite light from Kasparov. If there is one thing we have learned from forty years of research into artificial intelligence, it's this: The things we usually regard as intellectually hard -- chess playing, solving algebra problems, evaluating integrals, et cetera -- are relatively easy to program a computer to perform at least as well as, and often much better than, a human being. But the things that practically every small child can do -- use language fluently to communicate, understand a story, recognize a face, et cetera -- defy anything but a very crude approximation by a computer.

With the arrival of electronic calculators, human beings lost their centuries old sole planetary rights to being able to do arithmetic.

The development of computer algebra systems such as Mathematica and Maple meant we likewise had to accept that machines could outperform us in algebra and much of calculus.

Well, now the same thing is about to happen in chess. "So what?" is my response. At least, "So what?" when it comes to the doomsayers who see the development of Deep Blue as the beginning of the end for humankind.

Let's just step back and think a minute. No digital computer plays chess. Nor do they perform algebra. They don't even perform arithmetic. These are all intensely human activities. What computers do is simply sit there and obey the laws of physics.

What makes them useful to us, of course, is that we (note that: we) design and build them so that when electric current flows through a computer, simply obeying the laws of physics, we can interpret its behavior as arithmetic, algebra, chess, or whatever.

In other words, like beauty, the arithmetic, the algebra, the chess game, or whatever is all in the mind of the beholder. It's not in the machine.

So what we are about to witness in Manhatten is the latest testament to humankind's marvellous intellectual abilities. We can now build machines that (i) we can regard as performing various tasks that humans alone among animals can perform, and (ii) when we regard their behavior in that way, then by golly those machines outperform us.

Well, that's not entirely new. Throughout history, people have been building machines that can perform tasks better than humans. When Kasparov, referring to his upcoming match, talks about "an area that defines human beings," I think first not of machines proving to be superior to humans but of our ability as people to build better and better machines, machines that can outperform us at certain tasks.

When I see a jet aircraft take off, it does not reduce for me the marvel I experience when I gaze on a humming bird.

Likewise, when I think about Deep Blue searching blindly through million upon million possible "plays", looking for the one that maximizes a certain arithmetic function, I marvel at the way a good (human) chess player such as Kasparov can immediately home in, instinctively, on the two or three key moves worthy of further analysis. The fact is, Kasparov plays chess in a way that truly elicits our marvel -- marvel at what the human brain can achieve.

For me, the match we are about to witness in New York is not at all emblematic of a new era where we are no longer unique in our intellectual abilities. Whether you look at the intellect of Kasparov or the science that has led to Deep Blue, it's yet another testament to the power of the human mind, one of the feats of which has been the development of mathematics, leading to the science and the technology that has now given us Deep Blue.

- Keith Devlin

Devlin's Angle is updated at the beginning of each month.

Keith Devlin ( is the editor of FOCUS, the news magazine of the MAA. Computer chess is one of the examples he discusses in his latest book Goodbye, Descartes: The End of Logic and the Search for a New Cosmology of the Mind, published earlier this year by John Wiley and Sons.