The triumphant teamwork of humans and computers.

Science, technology, and life.
May 11 2007 6:05 PM

Chess Bump

The triumphant teamwork of humans and computers.

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If we humans are so good at seeing the big picture, let's see it. In the big picture, whether the computer beats us isn't important. Either way, it's a human triumph. In fact, it's a greater human triumph when the computer wins, because the only thing harder than outsmarting a computer is figuring out how it got outsmarted and teaching it to recognize that kind of trap next time, when you won't be there to coach it. As a player, you can conceive a brilliant move without understanding where it came from. As a programmer, you have to do something much harder: articulate rules that will generate such brilliance.

From microwaves to cell phones to word processors, computers are extending our intelligence. At their best, and at ours, they're challenging us, forcing us to higher levels of thought. Pitting my brain against yours is hard. Pitting my program against yours—teaching one machine to spot and exploit another's subtle flaws—is much harder. The toughest chess matches in the world today aren't between players like Kramnik and Kasparov. They're between players like Fritz and Junior. May the best algorithm win.

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When the cosmic game between humans and computers is complete, here's how the sequence of moves will read. In the opening, humans evolved through engagement with nature. In the middle game, we projected our intelligence onto computers and co-evolved through engagement with them. In the endgame, we merged computers with our minds and bodies, bringing that projected intelligence back into ourselves. The distinction between human and artificial intelligence turns out to have been artificial.

You don't have to be a machine to see the endgame unfolding. Last year, a Missouri teenager reached the third level of Space Invaders by operating the gun through wires attached to his brain. Today, the European Union is developing a cybernetic dental implant that can medicate you according to a dosage and schedule programmed by your doctor. In Russia, Kasparov has retired from chess and moved on to what he calls "larger competition"—leading a movement against the country's authoritarian regime. You can read all about it on his Web site. All you need is a computer.

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.