Kasparov and the Machine

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September 21st, 2012 Posted by AAG Filed in: Beyond

In 1997 Russian Grand-Master Garry Kasparov played IBM’s Deep Blue in the “chess match of the century” and lost the match. While Deep Blue’s victory was initially heralded as a breakthrough success in technology innovation, a new documentary offers a startling twist: that IBM may have rigged the match to score public-relations points in the stock market, and broken Kasparov’s will in the process. This article explores the role of stock prices, ethics, and publicity in corporate America.

I wrote this article after watching “Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine”. For a while, I had been wanting to write a comprehensive article on the broad implications of Ray Kurzweil’s IT-futurism in the 21st century, and I’d hoped that this movie would be a great introduction to the increasing proficiency of computer-technology in a number of once human-dominated roles.

Interestingly, this documentary was not what I expected: it very clearly suggested that IBM had rigged the 1997 world-championship chess game between the Deep Blue supercomputer and grand-master chess-player Garry Kasparov. The claim was that through a man-machine interface kept out of sight during the game, the IBM team been able to effectively leverage human processing in conjunction with the machine’s ability to make better moves than Kasparov could in an unaided capacity.

In other words, IBM cheated. Kasparov had designed his strategy based on the rigid rule-sets he’d encountered playing Deep Blue back in 1996 and easily won the earlier match, giving the Deep Blue team less than a year for an upgrade and a rematch. That’s not a lot of time to overhaul a system like Deep Blue, so rather than making the machine play better chess, they programmed it to play Kasparov in every sense of the word.

The compelling but circumstantial evidence raises more questions than answers: the Deep Blue team looks & acts guilty all the way through the documentary, and IBM also refused to deliver the log-files on the computer’s game after the 6 matches, despite the fact that they’d promised this as a condition to finish the game. Additionally, IBM reportedly suppressed news stories by chess-reporters suggesting that the computer’s game looked suspicious, including locking one reporter in a basement room to interrogate him about what he’d written.

Like everybody else, at that time of the event I’d assumed that the computer had finally just been improved to the point of being able to beat Kasparov at chess, but now I wonder. There’s been a lot of social-mileage in between then and now — and IBM had a clear motive to win at any cost: a 15% increase in their stock-price by beating the world-championship titleholder. We’ve gone through scandals at Enron, Boeing, MCI-Worldcom, and a number of other companies since ‘97 in which corporate ethics were sacrificed in the name of boosting stock prices.

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