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Art and Machine

a machine is the chess King by beating a lesser machine

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, May 21, 1997.

I regret I missed last week. I was unable to get in to record the program. I suppose we all feel somewhat diminished this week. The Russian Kasporov lost to Big Blue, the IBM computer designed to do just that. And now, we are told, machines have finally learned to think and, worse, out think us. And because the greatest chess player of all time could not beat it, we are told, woe, woe is our fate. Or something. I have a somewhat different point of view, and I much prefer the computer as my selected Grand Master to Kasporov. At least the machine, at the age of thirty-five, will not be living with its mother.

It seems to me that what the machine did, if indeed the whole match wasn’t a set-up for a heroic and lucrative comeback by Kasporov, was blow the mythology of chess out the window as the garbage it was. Chess has been presented in literature and journalism as the greatest game, with long and deep legacies in military lore, going back to Egypt and before. Its masters were supposed to be among the world’s most intelligent people. It was supposed to be a game of such concentration that mere mortals didn’t, actually couldn’t, understand it. Wizards of the game, when they could be kicked into discussing their world, referred to “patterns” and elegance as if they were talking about great art. We all believed it.

Turns out that chess is nothing more than math and odds. There are, for example, only twenty opening moves available, two to each of the eight pawns, and four to the two knights. If you reduce the game to such thinking, and keep track of every eventuality, step by step, eventually you have a data base so huge that people cannot process it: but silicon can, with human prompting. This is pretty basic stuff, however extensive the options. When Kasporov was confronted with a machine that simply processed everything at blinding speed, there could be no doubt of its outcome. As music is math made beautiful, chess is math made obvious.

Why, however, are we to be depressed about this? Aren’t chess fanatics simply computer geeks in another form? There have been computer programs for years that do both painting and write music. Surely that is the more dangerous event than mere math to the vanity of humans. Can critics tell the difference between original music written by computer and a piece written by a hysteric, tubercular proto-suicide on drugs with a savage childhood behind him and an alcoholic present? For years, we’ve been told that art reflected these intrinsic human frailties, and that the pain was what spoke to us through the medium. Machines, we were told, could never replicate that because they have no soul and no debts, and therefore their work could never move us. I wonder. I wonder if human emotion is as predictable as a chess move, and that a machine can, studying media available to it, construct an artistic environment to manipulate emotion. That is pretty scary, to have our entire artistic heritage be revealed as absolutely doable by a machine, and perhaps surpassed. Could it happen?

Of course it can. It happens every day. Much of the pop music we hear is run through computers to see if it is legally original, and therefore copyrightable and potentially profitable, and changed if not. Then, the remaining options are programmed to write the music. Words in love songs have been clichéd for years, winnowed out by the public. Music is presented to manipulate people on certain sorts of drugs and not others. All this is well known and unworthy of further mention. But how much visual art is already done by computer? Can we tell if humans played any direct role in the art? If we cannot tell whether man or machine made it, is it art any more? Certainly, we would need a new definition.

So why the big deal over chess? Its a hot weather story, surely, but the fact that one set of geeks beat another, solaced only by his mother, and who apparently made a genuinely boneheaded error early on, hardly reduces us to the spiritual level of, say, insects, to whom I apologize. It merely was a game of math, and one guy lost. eh....