Garry Kasparov is a chess grandmaster, once the best in the world. But the game he’ll be remembered for is one he lost. Actually, it’s one he walked out on after 19 moves.
His smarter, more sportsmanlike opponent? No whimsical, turban-clad automaton. It was a computer named Deep Blue.
What it lacked in presentation, Deep Blue made up for with facts. What the mechanical turk pretended to be, that Edgar Allan Poe had declared impossible halfway through the nineteenth century, had been made real at the close of the twentieth.
But how? What did Deep Blue do to subdue that hobgoblin, uncertainty? Poe rightly ascertained that you don’t know what your opponent will do after your move. Did Deep Blue beat Kasparov by achieving Poe’s “mind” and becoming sentient?
No. Deep Blue defeated uncertainty and Kasparov not by being human, but by being superhuman. Rather than perceiving the future like a coin-operated mystic or intuiting through uncertainty like machines that wouldn’t come to exist for more than another decade, Deep Blue tallied the futures and accounted for every possible one.
A typical chess master thinks 10 moves ahead. Deep Blue analyzed 74, simulating and evaluating as many positions as needed to overwhelm uncertainty through brute force.
Deep Blue’s techniques themselves were not revolutionary. In fact, alpha-beta search had been around since 1958. Instead, it was advances in computing power that enabled it to churn through possibilities fast enough to make better selections than the best human players.
The Mechanical Turk applied the new technology of clockwork to the age-old art of charlatanry and then Deep Blue took modern computing power and applied it to a spruced-up version of an algorithm from the fifties. This pattern would continue in the coming decades, when once more a computer would beat the best human at a game with so many possible moves that even Deep Blue could never churn through them all.
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