Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Man Versus Machine


Before I knew anything about computers, I knew a lot about chess. Never a good player, I enjoyed the mental challenge of the game and especially its history and personalities. Like most things I learned as a teenager, I learned chess from books.

Like many chess players I read about, I also had my quirks. Unlike them, I cared less about winning than exploring possibilities. Because of this, I preferred offense to defense: a good way to lose. I thought end games dull, meaning more loses.

Despite these flaws, I enjoyed playing. This changed when I got my first computer chess game, Sargon, in the late 70s. It was a good program and a decent chess player (for my limited skills).

I eventually lost interest because I wanted to play at the end of the day to relax. Naturally, I made mistakes because I was tired. It became annoying because the program never made a mistake.

Psychologically, you may know you can make better moves than your machine opponent but you also know its mechanistic approach will never lapse—even in the slightest. After a while, you realize the only way to win is to be a better machine.

A phrase often heard in many sports says, winning is the ability of one side to impose its will on the other. No team, no person does this without extreme emotional commitment. Playing a machine is never more than practice. Where is the emotion?
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Sports are shared experiences, which can be life-changing. Computers only acquire data. Competition means nothing to a computer. It doesn’t actually play chess, it simulates playing.

It doesn’t care about winning. It doesn’t even know what it means to win; that’s just what it’s programmed to do. Most certainly, it doesn’t fear losing. It doesn’t need any motivation.

I could go on and on about what computers, even world-class chess playing computers, can’t do. Most importantly, they will never truly know chess. No computer will ever enjoy learning about chess as I did, even with my limited abilities.

No computer can ever do more than the imagination of its programmers allow it to do. A few may be superior to humans at specific tasks, but would they want to leave a burning building?

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