Chess Playing Computers

Most people know that computer chess programs today can beat even the world champion. Gary Kasparov was the world champion back in the 1990s, and he was the first world champion to lose to a computer. Kasparov has written very insightfully about the difference between how humans play chess, and how computers play chess. Computers use their raw computational power to look forward and examine every possible implication of each possible move. Humans can’t do that, but they have strategic abilities that computers don’t.

In the New York Review of Books*, Kasparov describes an interesting chess match he designed: in 1998, the top two players (Kasparov and Veselin Topalov) each played a match in which they were allowed to use a PC, running their chess program of choice. They could then use the computer to examine large databases of opening sequences, and to calculate the impacts of each potential move. As Kasparov writes, “since we both had access to the same database, the advantage still came down to creating a new idea at some point.” And, you never have to worry about making a tactical blunder, an obvious mistake. The result? A draw.

In 2005, an online chess-playing site named hosted another interesting match that they called “freestyle”: anyone could compete, either in teams, or using as many computers as they liked. The famous chess machine named Hydra was also in the competition, playing with no human collaborator–and the teams that combined a strong grandmaster player with a (lesser) computer could easily beat Hydra. “Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.”

But the surprise was who won the match: not a famous grandmaster, and not a supercomputer programmed at MIT. It was a pair of amateur U.S. players, using three ordinary computers at once. They had figured out how to collaborate with each other, and how to manipulate and “coach” their three computers to examine positions. Kasparov’s conclusion?

Weak human plus machine plus better process was superior to a strong computer alone, and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human plus machine plus inferior process.

This is what researchers call “distributed cognition”–when the decision making entity is a complex system, composed of multiple people and technological artifacts. Getting the system’s design right is almost always the way to maximize outcomes. That’s why it’s so important that we learn how to design groups for maximum collaborative creativity.

*Gary Kasparov, “The chess master and the computer,” review of Chess Metaphors by Diego Rasskin-Gutman, in the NYRB Feb. 11, 2010, pp. 16-19.