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Making Life from Scratch

Artificial intelligence is not human intelligence, nor is synthetic life the same as life with evolutionary history.

Robert L. Dorit

2013-09MargDoritF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageOn May 11, 1997, Garry Kasparov pushed his chair back from the table and walked away from the chessboard. After only 19 moves, he conceded the game to Deep Blue, a massive parallel-processing computer built and programmed by IBM. For the first time ever, a machine had succeeded in defeating a chess Grand Master.     

Around the world, headlines declared the victory of machine over man. Some proclaimed that a computer was now as smart as a human being. Although the outcome was most certainly a landmark in the evolution of computers and in the field of artificial intelligence, many commentators missed what was perhaps the most profound lesson of that encounter. Deep Blue indeed managed to defeat Kasparov, but only by doing what computers do best: crunching numbers. Some reporters spoke anthropomorphically about Deep Blue’s “strategy,” but as strategies go, it was remarkably lacking in finesse. Deep Blue mindlessly analyzed virtually every conceivable play and its consequences several moves down the line. After that, the machine countered Kasparov according to predetermined criteria.

Deep Blue’s display of computational brute force had nothing to do with the way Kasparov (or even I, for that matter) plays chess. Far from being a defeat for human intelligence, the outcome demonstrated that Kasparov could, through training and intuition, play a beautifully thoughtful game of chess, whereas a computer could play only crudely and mechanically—through exhaustive calculation. It had taken IBM 12 years of concerted work to build a machine powerful enough (not smart enough) to defeat Kasparov. Even so, Kasparov was demonstrably rattled by the result. He should not have been.

I do not mean to downplay the significance of Deep Blue’s win. Tremendous human ingenuity went into developing its hardware and software. But the route to Deep Blue’s victory underscores the fact that artificial intelligence, although compelling in its own right, is not a silicon-based version of human intelligence. When Deep Blue won at chess, the machine did so precisely by not mimicking the operation of the human brain. Deep Blue did not triumph by being intelligent. It triumphed by being big.

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