Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Some respect for Bill Gates... 

Ok, I've done my fair share of bashing on Bill and his company, but I have to admit my respect for him just went up a notch or so. I was going through various sites on Go (more on that later), and one page had a list of celebrities that have played the go. One of which was Bill, which linked to this interview, which went into the whole man vs. machine chess stuff:

Q. Kindly share your thoughts on recent victory of a computer over chess champion Gary Kasparov. Raj Bansal (rbansal@sprynet.com)

A. I answered a similar question early in 1996, when Kasparov beat the chess-playing computer "Deep Blue." I said it was just a matter of time before a computer won a match against the world's best chess player, and that it wouldn't mean much when it happened.

Now a computer called "Deep Thought" has won and, as I said, the victory has little significance. It just proves that a bunch of chess experts with a computer can outplay a lone genius.

The computer that was used to beat Kasparov didn't figure out how to play chess; it was told by people to do some mechanical, numeric comparisons. The machine didn't recognize any patterns; it didn't gain any knowledge by playing those chess games in any way, shape or form. It just performed rote calculations blindingly fast.

Humans gave Deep Thought algorithms that let it evaluate different chess positions, a knowledge of book openings and the ability to try out billions of possible chess moves each minute. The machine is highly specialized. It does one thing: it plays chess. It can't even play checkers or balance a checkbook, let alone appreciate humor or reason with a child.

Human intelligence involves generality. A human being can be put into a general situation, understand that situation, learn new things and apply that knowledge to other situations. Playing chess can help teach a person how to apply strategy in other games or situations and possibly even succeed in business, but playing chess can't teach a computer anything. The chess-playing computer doesn't have one iota of generality.

It's impressive that a big, breathtakingly expensive computer can perform billions of calculations amazingly fast. It will be even more impressive when inexpensive personal computers run at similar speeds. You may carry one on your belt or wrist someday, and no one will be in awe of it any more than they are in awe of a wristwatch today.

What is awesome now, and will remain so then, is the human brain.

What kind of incredible pattern-recognition algorithm does the brain use that makes it so effective that it takes a supercomputer to beat it in a game of chess? It's a complete mystery how the brain, which sends signals relatively slowly, can recognize and react to patterns incredibly quickly.

We will solve this puzzle, either by inventing similar architecture or decoding the architecture of the brain. We may not be able to replicate the brain's approach in practical ways, but within my lifetime we'll at least get a basic clue as to how the brain achieves the magnificent things it does.

Gary Kasparov's brain can play checkers, translate Russian to English, and rapidly cope with new circumstances. It can also beat Deep Thought in chess some of the time. That's awesome.

What a great answer! And in a related theme, Go itself is much harder for computers to play than Chess, due to the emphasis on pattern matching and other factors. As far as I know, the most powerful Go computers are still at an "advanced player, but below pro" type level. Yes, there hasn't been as much money thrown at it as there has been for Chess, but lots of evidence shows there are very significant hurdles to overcome. This article from the NY Times goes over a lot of the issues.

Sure computers have made an advance by beating people at chess, but if they can't even beat people at other kinds of games, there is still a long way to go before proclaiming the superiority of machines...

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