The Latest “Checker Charley” – or something more ominous?

A week from this Thursday I’ll be attending the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club meeting to discuss his first novel, Player Piano. I’ve already posted about the book, which anticipates a future where the scale is about to tip in favor of the machines of the world, but coincidentally I’ve also learned this week of a new, real life “challenge” to human-based intelligence.

An IBM supercomputer dubbed “Watson” is going to play a game of Jeopardy against two of the game’s greatest human champions. This is reminiscent of the Kasparov-Deep Blue chess matches (and – perhaps less so – the appearance of “Checker Charley” in Vonnegut’s book), but this is also different. Chess and Checker playing programs are able to use “brute force” calculating power to defeat their human opponents. “Watson” must be able to use language recognition and other skills further up the artificial intelligence food chain.

IBM was running commercials this past weekend during the NFL playoff games and will no doubt get tons of publicity as a result of this event. I know I’ll be tuning in next month to watch, and I know who I’ll be rooting for. But… Just like watching Kasparov and other chess grandmasters face off against computer programs in the 90’s, I know that – even should one of Watson’s human opponents win – it’ll still be just a matter of time before the computers will overtake “us” in this field of competition as well.

I cant help wondering this morning what Kurt Vonnegut would be thinking about this. I also wonder what he thought about the computer vs. Human chess matches years ago. I’m going to have to do a little research on the latter, as I’m sure he would have had something to say about that.

Below is a link to an article about the match. It seems Watson has already won the practice round…

Checker Charley and Deep Blue

What a shock this morning as I was reading Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano. I’m only about 20% into the novel when I encounter a great scene. ***Spoiler Alert*** At a kind of ‘company party’ the protagonist, Paul Proteus prepares to defend his title as undefeated, undisputed checker champion against the latest challenge from among the ranks of the young lions who work at The Ilium Works. Lo and behold, what happens next but they wheel out a checker-playing machine dubbed “Checker Charley!” (I should mention that this book was written in 1952, in the mere infancy of the computer age.)

At first Proteus begins to walk away from the challenge, (“I can’t win against the damn thing. It can’t make a mistake.”) but is somehow convinced to play. His friend, Finnerty, is confident in his chances and even wagers money on Proteus, eagerly covered by supporters of the machine. When the game starts, Proteus suspects something is up, as he is able to capture a man without seeing any drawbacks. He assumes that the machine’s plan is so long-range and deep that he simply doesn’t grasp it yet. The captures continue, however, and soon the rout is on. Clearly something is wrong with the machine. It’s operator touches a panel and explains it’s running “hot as a frying pan.” The machines backers try to get out of the bet, arguing that if its circuits were sound, the game would be fair. (Finnerty, it seems, had discovered the bad connection before the game, but hadn’t told anybody). When chided that he “should have told somebody about that connection,” In a great triumph of man over machine, he says:

“If Checker Charley is out to make chumps out of men, he can damn well fix his own connections. Paul looks after his own circuits; let Charley do the same. Those who live by electronics, die by electronics. Sic semper tyrannis.”

I love it. I’ve written before that I used to compete in chess tournaments, and was quite serious about them for many years. I even was editor of “Chess in Indiana” magazine for a stretch which included the year 1997. This part of Player Piano reminded me of how, In May of that year, the inevitable finally happened when a computer, IBM’s “Deep Blue” (a less catchy name than “Checker Charley,” don’t you think?) finally defeated the World Chess Champion (Garry Kasparov in this case) in a match. I remember following the match on the Internet Chess Club, along with thousands of others. I even saved a screenshot of the final position of the final game – which included the notification that Kasparov had resigned and published it in my magazine.

An odd thing I just remembered: the display of the games on the Internet Chess Club site would default to showing the White pieces at the bottom of the board, but in my picture, it is the Black pieces (users were able to customize the display if they wanted) leaving little doubt as to which side of the contest I identified with. 🙂

How prescient this scene of Vonnegut seems when reading it today. It predates the ultimate defeat of man by machine by 45 years.

Below: Kasparov vs another incarnation of Deep Blue

Sent from my iPad