Bunhill: Deep Blue reaches cut-off point
Sunday 18 May 1997
How apt the metaphor has proved. A week on from the defeat of world champion Garry Kasparov by a computer, we can see that life really is like chess: it's bloody complicated, we make some good moves but more often mess things up, it seems to go on forever but somehow there just isn't enough time, and then the game's over and we've lost. And the parallels don't end there, because the contrast between the impenetrable Deep Blue supercomputer and the tormented Kasparov also seemed to illustrate another fact of modern life: the march of technology and the apparent victory of matter over mind.
However, those who rage against the machine can take some comfort in the knowledge that it was people power, and not processing power, which put paid to Kasparov. Okay, it helped that Deep Blue (known to its friends as IBM RISC System/6000 Scalable POWERparallel Systems high-performance computer, or "say that again" for short) had 256 processors working in tandem and could calculate up to 400 million moves a second. But the crucial factor, says IBM, was the input of four grandmasters in programming Deep Blue with every conceivable chess position and the agility to work out what each move would be worth further down the line.
What Deep Blue was not imbued with, of course, was human frailty. Had that been the case, it would surely have spent the three minutes allowed between moves gasping for a cigarette, daydreaming about girls and football, and thinking: "Oh no, I've got 100 billion moves to choose from - my head's going to explode."
This didn't happen, of course, but there do seem to be signs of weakness. After all, if Deep Blue is so logical, why does it devote all that power to playing chess? The answer, disappointingly for the Luddites among us, is that it doesn't; it is also a drug researcher, air traffic controller, number-cruncher and risk assessor.
Deep Blue is part of a huge laboratory experiment that has been going on since the late 1980s at IBM as the company seeks to use the lessons gleaned at the board to develop programs and processing chips for a range of commercial applications. Among its potential markets is drug research which, like chess, involves sifting through a huge number of permutations to distinguish what moves could work from those that won't. IBM calculates that a specialist chip dedicated to pinpointing how different chemical compounds will react to each other could cut the average 12 years needed to bring new drugs to market to between six and eight years.
As if to underline the commercial potential of the game, Aurum Press has written to inform us of a new book called Samurai Chess, which shows how we can sweep the board by applying the strategic skills developed by Japanese warriors.
Chess, the publisher says, is played by high-profile businessmen such as Derek Wanless, NatWest's chief executive, and "has long been recognised as a unique means ... of honing the mind for the battles of modern business". And by basing our approach to the game on martial arts philosophies, it adds, not only will we win at chess but we will "enjoy a unique metaphor for success in business and life".
Well, not being inclined to accept such things at face value, I took the liberty of programming Deep Blue with the action plans outlined in Samurai Chess. These were some of the responses: "opponent has exposed your bishop - cut his head off with the ceremonial sword"; "opponent has moved his knight up to your king - take his knight with your castle ... and cut his head off"; "opponent threatening your knight with his bishop - take his bishop, perform bizarre Japanese ritual dance ... and cut his head off"; "opponent has achieved check mate - cut his head off and perform hara-kiri".
Farewell, then, Liam Strong, who leaves Sears in June after a tempestuous period of tenure in which investors were constantly after his blood. According to the City, Strong failed because he wasn't ruthless enough with the flagging retail group. "The company needed a bastard," said one observer, "and Liam just wasn't a big enough bastard."
Perhaps, but he wasn't far off. Strong may not have been a bastard but, as the pictures below show, he was at least a B'stard.
What will they think of next? Just as we thought we'd overcome our addiction to nicotine patches along come Diet Scent Plasters, which promise to overcome our craving for chocolate by soaking our sense of smell and taste with the sweet aroma of tropical orchids.
While this innovation rests on the rather dubious premise that we all want to be cured of bad habits (after all, vice is nice), you can see the logic: just a taste of the real thing and more indulgence would make you feel sick. In fact, so compelling is the idea that there is no reason why commercial applications should stop at chocolate.
For instance, somewhere out there is an entrepreneur who will cure us of our addiction to TV cop shows. He is developing a miniature tape recorder that clips on to our ear and is programmed to activate the following messages at five-minute intervals: "Shut it!"; "It's gone pear-shaped, sarge"; "He's a blagger and he's got it coming"; "The wheels have come off"; "He's fireproof, guv"; and, finally, "Cough to eating the chocolate bar after sniffing a diet plaster and we'll have a word with the Beak."
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