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Chess By Computer: Is This Progress?

SOME would call this progress. Computer-science graduate students at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh have designed a computerized chess program, nicknamed ``Deep Thought,'' that has defeated two grandmasters and will challenge world champion Gary Kasparov Oct. 22.

Grandmaster Robert Byrne, who recently lost to ``Deep Thought,'' wrote in the New York Times that the program ``combines enormous speed and computational power with sophisticated analysis, itself developed by computer, of the relative values of the chess pieces depending on where they are and what stage the game has reached.''

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Thus ``Deep Thought'' is able to evaluate 720,000 possible moves and positions on the chessboard every second, making it able to ``play'' far faster than any human competitor.

Some would call this technological wizardry progress, inevitable progress at that. But I'm not so sure.

Computers indeed have helped make possible tremendous improvement in our individual and collective quality of life during the past few decades, inaccurate computer-processed bills notwithstanding. This essay, in fact, is being written at a computer, more easily and quickly than if I were composing it on my manual typewriter.

So I'm no computerphobe. But surely there are limits on how far we want this marvelous instrument of high technology to intrude into what should remain human endeavors. Perhaps grandmasters such as Byrne and Kasparov can appreciate the challenge of playing a machine that not only should be incapable of error, but is also devoid of distracting personality traits. I doubt, though, that I will ever share that appreciation.

Maybe it's just that I'm not a good enough chess player to give the computer a run for its money. That's certainly true, but I suspect there is a more fundamental reason for the Luddite uneasiness ``Deep Thought'' elicits in me.

My father taught me chess when I was six or seven years old. We played often during winters when little work could be done at the farm. Comfortably encamped in front of the living-room stove, a large bowl of freshly popped corn nearby, we engaged in mortal combat as snow fell outside and cold winds howled.

I just cannot envision so relaxing and enjoyable a scene were ``Deep Thought's'' monitor substituted for my father, though there would be much more popcorn for me.

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More recently, on the evening I learned my grandparents were seriously ill, a friend invited me to play chess so I would not have to be alone just then, but also wouldn't be compelled to talk much if I didn't feel like it.

``Deep Thought'' is incapable of a simple act of friendship and kindness such as that. Nor could the machine have given me the emotional support I needed at that difficult time.

Some would say that by objecting to ``Deep Thought'' I am standing in the way of irreversible progress and opposing what inevitably must be the future. I can respond only by recalling what Ralph Waldo Emerson once said of the dual nature of progress:

``The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky.''

Give me Emerson's star in the sky and good friends and family, mere mortals all, with whom to play chess - for the simple pleasures by which they enrich my life - win, lose, or stalemate. Surely the machine has not been nor ever can be invented to improve upon that.

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