[Humanist] 23.592 Kasparov's wolf

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jan 24 09:50:41 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 592.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 23 Jan 2010 10:20:08 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: sometimes there is a wolf

We highly educated sorts have all kinds of sophisticated mental routines for
turning aside just about anything whose point would discomfort us. (Milton's
portrait of Satan comes to mind.) We have the "o tempora, o mores" gambit
covered in all its variations. Since we've lost the conventional language
for expressing the idea that humanity is damned but not the evidence which
still suggests that idea, "o tempora, o mores" hasn't much of an edge to
begin with. It's bound to be unpopular in a techno-centric age.  And since
it's usually the older ones who proclaim it -- those who are themselves
speedily going to Hell in a handbasket -- the lament really does have an
uphill battle to wage before attention can be drawn to whatever the problem
is. But sometimes, you know, there really is somethingto pay attention to.

My thanks to Wendell Piez, as so often in the past, for the pointer to
something worthy of our attention, in this case to Gary Kasparov's review of
Diego Rasskin-Gutman's Chess Metaphors in the NYRB for 11 February, 57.2,
www.nybooks.com/articles/23592. His observation that humans are now playing
chess more and more like computers adds to the accumulating store of
observations and arguments along those lines. But what grabs me even more is
his explication of "our last chess metaphor":

>  a metaphor for how we have discarded innovation and creativity in
> exchange for a steady supply of marketable products. The dreams of
> creating an artificial intelligence that would engage in an ancient
> game symbolic of human thought have been abandoned. Instead, every
> year we have new chess programs, and new versions of old ones, that
> are all based on the same basic programming concepts for picking a
> move by searching through millions of possibilities that were
> developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Like so much else in our
> technology-rich and innovation-poor modern world, chess computing has
> fallen prey to incrementalism and the demands of the market.
> Brute-force programs play the best chess, so why bother with anything
> else? Why waste time and money experimenting with new and innovative
> ideas when we already know what works? Such thinking should horrify
> anyone worthy of the name of scientist, but it seems, tragically, to
> be the norm. Our best minds have gone into financial engineering
> instead of real engineering, with catastrophic results for both
> sectors.

Instead of Cicero's lament perhaps we should address those who shape
our part of the world with "For shame!" and ourselves feel ashamed
whenever the shoe fits?

But a moment more of your time. No doubt that sense of shame would be
healthy all around as a corrective to the shameless commercialisation of
universities, but I wonder if more isn't involved here. 

What would delight the Kasparovs among us? What would we regard as a
scientifically or intellectually respectable result? Clearly the opposite of
"brute-force" automation: an mathematically elegant algorithm, the simpler
the better, that would with a minimum number of steps artifically reason its
way to check-mate. We'd then forgive the massive computing power required
and rejoice in the brilliance of the (human) idea, yes? Because this is how
we think we work. This is our intelligence (neverminding the fact that we
don't know the steps by which it is achieved).

But is this the way, or the only way, that computing behaves when it is most
successful? Compare, for example, how we once thought perfect
information-retrieval would work -- before Google. (Somewhere Terry Winograd
speaks of his great surprise as a conventionally trained computer scientist
by the success of its approach.) Consider the effects of very dumb searches
in JSTOR and its kind, precisely due to the fact that their "precision" is
so poor.

So, if your interest is on the cognitive science side of things, wanting to
know what computing can tell us about cognition, isn't the gulf between
brute-force chess and Kasparovian chess valuable? Do we welcome the wolf?



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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