In the wake of his Masters golf triumph, a performance that signaled to most cognoscenti a Ruthian sea-change in the limits of the game, Tiger Woods has become the reigning hero of the sports-industrial complex. His days may be numbered. As we write IBM must have a crack team of ex-PGA pros and top-shelf AI researchers designing the program that, wanting only a robotics breakthrough, will drive longer and putt sweeter than the kid from Stanford could ever hope. Call it Deep Green.

Until then, though, Woods can rest easy. Poor Garry Kasparov should have it so good. While Woods grins from glossies great and small and counts his swoosh, Kasparov is now the official recipient of a serious, digital ass-whipping. Sunday's loss to IBM's Deep Blue ended a bitter emotional week for the champion and a new lease on glory for the company that Bill Gates excluded from his CEO summit in Seattle. It is hard to know which was more telling: how Kasparov lost the match or how Deep Blue won.

According to Susan Polgar, the women's world champion, quoted in the New York Times last Tuesday, the computer "made many moves that were based on understanding chess, on feeling the position." Many chess experts agreed with this "Karate Kid" reading of Deep Blue's strategy, and concurred with her and IBM corner man Murray Campbell' s likening of Deep Blue's style to that of former champion and Kasparov nemesis, Anatoly Karpov. (Kasparov, in fact, has hinted at his own conspiracy theory: a grandmaster stashed away -- Karpov in a bunker, perhaps? -- calling Deep Blue's shots.)

As the week wore on things grew a bit too complicated for the usual John Henry spin. Born with a bishop in his hand, Kasparov, like the steel-drivin' man before him, is first and foremost a human being, and he made a very human error last week when he resigned without seeing the possibility of a draw via perpetual check. Most agreed with his decision at the time, and it was only later, in the virtual hothouse of a chess chatroom, that a midwestern philosophy professor unraveled the sequence that could have saved Kasparov from defeat. (A tie with Deep Blue is like kissing your sister's laptop.) What shocked Kasparov, though, and fueled his suspicions about a man behind the curtain, was the fact that the computer also failed to spot the potential check. Given that neither the chess king nor the deep blue monster saw the possible draw, but a chatroom full of geeks did, perhaps it is time for different kind of match, via the internet: Kasparov versus Everybody in the Damn World. That ought to teach him.

But even before the re-tooled and hyper-anthropomorphized IBM wunderkind -- "responding to defeat with the pride and tenacity of a champion," gushed the Times' Bruce Weber last week -- finally defeated Kasparov, talk about human nature and machine dreams had taken some bizarre turns. As chess subsides as the ultimate benchmark, what new standard will emerge to test the prowess of Deep Blue's descendants? Could a computer be taught to write a great novel, perhaps? (The software for bad ones, not to mention screenplays, is already on the market.) The roundtable discussion in Harper's this month, "Our Machines, Ourselves," convened Jaron Lanier, David Gelernter, James Bailey, and Charles Siebert to discuss, among other things, whether you could engineer software that might feel things besides the necessary sadness of a pawn sacrifice. How about love, mysterium, the peat-stench of the moors? "Instead of just one Wuthering Heights," said Gelernter. "I can get a new Wuthering Heights every week." We can already imagine the press release: 200 million pathetic fallacies a second!

Thoughout IBM's man vs. machine tournament, Electric Minds has hosted a fascinating forum on chess -- its relevance to politics, technology, psychology, even gender issues. According to one post, "Psychologists related the difference in playing skill to the Oedipal complex: chess, they say, is a symbolic father murder with a strong attachment to the mother, so the game holds the fascination of men, while meaning little to women."

The grandaddy of all intelligent computers is the murderously shrewd HAL (at the very least, he could cream anyone in chess). On the IBM site, David Stork compares Deep Blue, Kasparov and HAL: "At the time of the filming of 2001, there was a clear pro-human/anti-computer sentiment, at least as far as chess was concerned... Nowadays, few of us feel deeply threatened by a computer beating a world chess champion -- any more than we do at a motorcycle beating an Olympic sprinter."

In a Times article, "Ghost in the Chess Machine," George Johnson explains the potential of computerized chess: "In 1950, Claude Shannon... calculated that possible paths through the maze of a typical chess game could number 10 to the 120th power. Even a computer exploring a billion of these variations a second would take more than 10 to the 100th power years to analyze a game completely."

Deep Blue's not the only one who has raised questions about human hardwiring. Dear old Dolly had us all wound up about what of us is duplicable "brute force" and what's more intuitive -- the soul. Have a look at Mark Slouka's ode to humanism, "Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?" "With Dolly," he warns, "the marketplace has entered -- much more aggressively than ever before -- the inner sanctum of the body." Sound familiar?

As great a novel as it may be, some here at FEED believe Bronte wrote just one Heathcliff installment for a reason. Though the idea of computer-generated literature is not without its intriguing side, Thomas Pynchon's corpus might be the more suitable model for the experiment. The data retrieval and mass integration required to throw a Gravity's Rainbow, or a V. on the newsstand every week is just the task for, say, five hundred microprocessors in twin black monoliths. It might even bring forth the toothy one from his purported Upper Broadway exile to denounce this exhibition of an Artificial Profane.

Whatever the outcome of future showdowns like the one between Kasparov and Deep Blue last week, our fear and amazement will only increase over the next few years. Some have commented that it is a mistake to define our humanity by the power to reason, that our uniqueness lies elsewhere, perhaps in less admirable qualities. Computers may share grandmaster status with us, but we remain the only entities on the planet capable of playing the role of sore loser. After his defeat, Kasparov showed all the grace of the arrogant, moody brain jock that he is. This didn't really count, he sulked; let Deep Blue test its chips in a tournament setting, where opponents get a chance to study the machine's strategies. The real human difference, then, may lie here, somewhere between weak excuses and redemptive spin. Sure, you can teach a computer to play the Nimzowich-Indian Defense, but we are still far from the day when you can hardwire the paranoia and petulance that makes Kasparov the people's champion of this strange, transitional age.


-- S.L. (May 12, 1997)


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