PHILADELPHIA -- Human pre-eminence in the game of chess entered its twilight period here this week.
It does not matter how the historic match between current world chess champion Garry Kasparov and the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue ends today. Kasparov has been beaten once, drawn twice by the computer since the match opened last Saturday. That never happened before. It's in the books.
Last night, in the next-to-last game of the six-game match, Kasparov won his second game. He can do no worse than a tie in the match now.
Even so, Kasparov's boast that "In serious, classical chess, computers do not have a chance in this century" sounds hollow today.
When Kasparov signed up for this match with the IBM machine he demanded a winner-take-all arrangement. It was later negotiated to an 80-20 split.
"Garry thought it would be the easiest $400,000 he ever picked up," grandmaster Yasser Sierawan said early in yesterday's game. "Now he's in the tussle of his life."
Human beings have been playing this game for 1,400 years. Computers have marched to this point in a mere 45. Though they are dismissed by some as engines of brute force calculation, glorified adding machines, they just get better and better.
The premonition of an unhappy outcome here was manifest early on among the 300 or more aficionados who paid $20 a game to watch the match on immense television screens at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, removed from the quiet room where Kasparov sat day after day facing his antagonist with the silicon brain.
At one moment during the first game, many of those first-day spectators seemed to lose their grip on the single element that is supposed to mark them all as chess players: their affection for logical thought.
About two hours into the game, when Kasparov's position was marginally inferior to that of the computer, the grandmaster Sierawan asked the audience to assess who was winning. A majority of hands went up to acknowledge Deep Blue's advantage.
About 45 minutes later, when Kasparov's situation had deteriorated further, Sierawan called for another poll. A slight majority raised their hands for Kasparov.
It all seemed like an exercise in collective wishful thinking. Why did this happen?
No one knows for sure, and there are those who interpret the positions at that point as less damaging to Kasparov than the Fritz 4 computer, monitoring the game, did. But, odd as it may sound, it seemed an approprite response, kind of an emotional necessity. It was like a cheer: Go, Garry, Go!
For in the agony leading up to Kasparov's surrender to the computer, an apprehension seemed to move through the crowd, and the defeat, once it was complete, triggered a number of extravagant interpretations. One amateur player compared it to a medieval battle that changed the future of Europe, though he couldn't remember where or when it was fought. Whatever, he said, the game was a "turning point in history."
Then Kasparov came back and won the next day's game and confidence was restored, briefly. That was followed by two draws, which brought the anxiety back. Last night, Kasparov had the advantage nearly throughout the game before the machine handlers finally conceded defeat.
Of legend and myth
Contests between men and machines have spawned a lot of legend and bequeathed a thousand myths of resistance. It has become a dimension of what it means to be human to resist, to spit in the eye of history.
Children are still taught about John Henry, the steel-driving man who challenged the machine that eventually took his job. He beat it, then dropped dead. It is a hero's tale.
Then there is the story of Ned Ludd, who briefly led a band of malcontents in 19th-century England who went around smashing
textile machines in an effort to hold back the Industrial Revolution. Generally, the Luddites are remembered as cranks. But not by everybody.
Garry Kasparov has taken it upon himself to "defend humanity" by engaging in intellectual combat with computers. He is one of the few grandmasters willing to do this.
Thus, he has put himself in the path of the digital revolution, an expression used to describe the ascendency of the computer. It is a dangerous choice, almost always unsuccessful. But it has the allure that all lost causes have.
Kasparov, of course, is different from John Henry and Ned Ludd. He is real; they are myths, though the resistance they symbolized actually flashed briefly, then died. What he shares with these two figments is that he, too, will eventually lose a match, even if he hasn't this time.
Monty Newborn, a computer scientist and head of the chess committee of the Association for Computing Machinery, which sponsored the match, is not surprised by the general funk that followed Kasparov's defeat in Game 1, and the two draws. He sees it as only the latest little bump in a long string of setbacks for the species generally.
For centuries, human beings have been apprising themselves of their own uniqueness and superiority. But even as this proceeded, science, man's own invention, downgraded the planet's position at the center of the universe to just another dust particle in the void. Then science, speaking through the person of Charles Darwin, told man his cousin is some kind of monkey.
All this has scared him. And this human fear, according to Kirkpatrick Sale, a neo-Luddite writer, is not an amorphous one. It is fixed on the computer.
"A great many feel threatened by the computer today," he says. "There are at least 10 million who have lost their jobs in the past 10 years because of it, and there are at least 40 million at risk."
Mr. Sale often dramatizes the anti-technology talks he gives by introducing a computer, man's most complicated tool, to one of his simpler ones, the hammer. He sees nothing wrong with bashing computers, verbally or actually. He's a Luddite, after all, and that's what they do.
And it's fun.
Feng-Hsiung Hsu frets that the whole idea of the match has been wrongly interpreted. Mr. Hsu is the main designer of Deep Blue, the man who sat at the terminal across from Kasparov, relaying his moves to the computer, executing the machine's commands by moving the pieces across the board. Deep Blue is not actually here in Philadelphia. It's in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and communicating over a telephone line. In an odd reversal of roles, Mr. Hsu is its robot, for the time being.
"It's not man vs. machine," he says. "If you look, you see the people behind the machine. The actual contest is between man the tool maker and man the performer. If the tool maker wins, it is a great victory for mankind. The tool can be used by all and everyone. If the performer wins, that is not a bad thing either. In fact, it's fun."
Deep Blue has not been developed simply to humiliate the likes of Garry Kasparov and strike fear into the hearts of us all. The software it will produce during these trials will go to improve air-traffic control systems, cargo and baggage handling, and pharmaceutical research, say the computer-niks walking the halls at the convention center.
The rest of us might ask how many people in those activities will wind up redundant as a result.
Mr. Hsu, with everyone else, is aware of man's atrophying sense of his own uniqueness, and the effect this has on self-esteem.
"Back in the 19th century, man was defined as the only tool-making creature. Now that has changed. We've learned that even crows make tools."
That would indeed seem to be the ultimate come-down, but Mr. Hsu insists that the uniquenesss of human beings continues to be affirmed by virtue of the production of ever more complex tools.
"That is the big difference still," he says. "We are making thinking tools."
Thinking tools? Do computers actually think? Is artifical intelligence, ah, genuine?
"Well, it has the illusion of thinking. I'm on the tool-making team, and that's good enough for us."
But is that logical?