AS WAS TO BE EXPECTED, THE END OF civilization as we know it was announced on the back pages. On Feb. 10, 1996, in Philadelphia, while America was distracted by the rise of Pat Buchanan, the fall of Phil Gramm and other trifles, something large happened. German philosophers call such large events world-historical. This was larger. It was species-defining. The New York Times carried it on page A32.
On Feb. 10, Garry Kasparov, the best chess player in the world and quite possibly the best chess player who ever lived, sat down across a chessboard from a machine, an IBM computer called Deep Blue, and lost.
True, it was only one game. What kind of achievement is that? Well--as Henny Youngman used to say when asked, "How's your wife?"--compared to what? Compared to human challengers for the world championship? Just five months ago, the same Kasparov played a championship match against the next best player of the human species. The No. 2 human played Kasparov 18 games, and won one. Deep Blue played Kasparov and won its very first game. And it was no fluke. Over the first four games, the machine played Kasparov dead even--one win, one loss, two draws--before the champ rallied and came away with the final two games.
Kasparov won the match. That was expected. Game 1, however, was not supposed to happen. True, Kasparov had lost to machines in speed games and other lesser tests. And lesser grand masters have lost regulation games to machines. But never before in a real game played under championship conditions had a machine beaten the best living human.
Indeed Kasparov, who a few weeks ago single-handedly took on the entire national chess team of Brazil, was so confident of winning that he rejected the offer that the $500,000 purse be split 60-40 between winner and loser. Kasparov insisted on winner-take-all. They settled on 80-20. (What, by the way, does Deep Blue do with its 100-grand purse? New chips?)
Asked when he thought a computer would beat the best human, Kasparov had said 2010 or maybe never. A mutual friend tells me Garry would have gladly offered 1-10, perhaps even 1-100 odds on himself. That was all before Game 1. After Game 1, Kasparov was not offering any odds at all. "He was devastated," said his computer coach, Frederick Friedel. "It was a shattering experience. We didn't know what the game meant. There was the theoretical possibility that the computer would be invincible, and that he would lose all six games."
True, we have already created machines that can run faster, lift better, see farther than we can. But cars, cranes and telescopes shame only our limbs and our senses, not our essence. Thinking is our specialty, or so we think. How could a device capable of nothing more than calculation (of the possible moves) and scoring (of the relative strengths of the resulting positions) possibly beat a human with a lifetime of experience, instant pattern recognition, unfathomable intuition and a killer instinct?
How? With sheer brute force: calculation and evaluation at cosmic speeds. At the height of the game, Deep Blue was seeing about 200 million positions every second. You and I can see one; Kasparov, two. Maybe three. But 200 million? It was style vs. power, and power won. It was like watching Muhammad Ali, floating and stinging, try to box a steamroller in a very small ring. The results aren't pretty.