Computers Aren’t So Smart, After All

During the "computer craze" of the 1950s and 1960s some people envisioned the machine replacing the human brain. It hasn't happened and, says the author, it probably never will. So we must still think for ourselves

In the late sixties a chess-playing, computer program was written at MIT and was entered into some local tournaments, where it won a number of games and caught the interest of the local newspapers. I had been curiously following the portentous visions that arose out of articles on the "cybernetic revolution" and was still unsure what to make of the Computer. Since I play chess, this new program seemed to offer a chance to sample its mysteries first hand. I called some friends at MIT, and they arranged for me to play MacHack, as the program was known.

The room in which the computers were kept lacked all signs of diurnal rhythm. There were no windows. The illumination was low, so as not to interfere with the phosphor screens. The only sound was the clatter of high-speed readout printers, and underneath that, the hum of air conditioners and circulators. People quietly came and went with perfect indifference to the hour. I found the scene—the rapt and silent meditations of the programmers hunched over their terminals, the background hum with its suggestion of unceasing activity, the hushed light, the twenty-four-hour schedules—subtly exhilarating.

I was shown how to code the moves and enter them into a terminal. The game itself began with a stock opening line: both the computer and I knew the standard chess moves, and so far as I could tell, to about the same depth. I had decided on what I thought would be a winning strategy. Any programmer, I reasoned, would try to make the positions which his program had to evaluate simple ones and would assign a priority to clarifying exchanges. I therefore set out to make the position as complex as possible, hoping that the machine would lose its way among the options and commit a common strategic blunder, entering into a premature series of exchanges that would end only by increasing the activity of my pieces. Instead, in a flurry of exchanges, I lost a pawn and nearly the game. The trick of playing with MacHack, I learned, is to keep the position free from tension. The program's strong point is tactics; it places priorities on piece mobility and material gain, and in the nature of chess these values generate local, tactical give-and-take.

So my strategy was to play away from the program's abilities and to steer the game into slow-paced, stable, balanced positions. Whenever I did this, MacHack's game seemed to become nervous and moody. The program would lose its concentration, begin to shift objectives restlessly, and launch speculative attacks. This is not an unfamiliar style; every chess club has some players—they are called "romantics "—whose joy is found in contact and tension, in games where pieces flash across the board and unexpected possibilities open up with each new move. Put them in slow positions, and, like MacHack, they grow impatient and try to force their game.

We played no more than five times; eventually, beating it became too easy. The winning formula was mechanically simple: develop cautiously, keep contact between the two sides restricted, let the pawns lead out the pieces. MacHack would always develop in a rush and send its knights and bishops skittering about the board trying to scare up some quick action; denied that action, its position would collapse in confusion. The only way to lose to MacHack, I concluded, would be to play as though the dignity of Man somehow required one to crush the machine in the first dozen moves. If, instead, one just played away from it, the computer would barrel by and fall in a heap. I was far more bored than I would have been playing a human of similar strength, and I came to feel that even if MacHack had been good enough to win most, or all, of its games I still would have felt I was wasting my time. In the middle of the nineteenth century, an enterprising showman hid a chess-playing dwarf in a cabinet and toured Europe, claiming that he had invented a chess-playing automaton. Large crowds were awed by the phony machine. My experience with MacHack suggested that the crowds must have come not only because the "automaton" appeared to be a machine but because the dwarf was a master, and could consistently win.

During the last two games I played, MacHack refused to give its moves when I was about to checkmate it. My curiosity was piqued at this sullenness, and I stayed, trying to wait the machine out and get a reply. MacHack just hummed at me. Finally a programmer, becoming interested in this delay, extracted the record of MacHack's deliberations. It had been working over the mate variations, just looking at them, over and over. "Must be a bug somewhere," the programmer said.

Every culture has its juvenile embarrassments; misdirected enthusiasms which fail dramatically and in retrospect seem to say something humiliating about the civilization that pursued them. The great computer craze of the late fifties and the sixties is such a case. From the erecting of the machine, any number of respected thinkers derived a vision of society. Edward Teller foresaw an automatic world, ruled by machines. Gerard Piel, publisher of Scientific American, wrote and spoke about the "disemployment of the nervous system." C. P. Snow thought that automation would be a revolution with effects "far more intimate in the tone of our daily lives ... than either the agricultural transformation in Neolithic times or the early industrial revolution." "Is the handwriting on the wall for the labor movement?, the Wall Street Journal asked, looking at the matter from its own perspective. ("Their membership may dwindle, their strike power weaken, and their political strength fade. And some of unionism's biggest names may be lesser names tomorrow.") The Ad Hoc Committee for the Triple Revolution (weaponry, automation, human rights), which was a study group composed of social luminaries like Gunnar Myrdal, Linus Pauling, A. J. Muste, Michael Harrington, Bayard Rustin, Irving Howe, Robert Heilbroner, and Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin of SDS, saw the coming of automation as an argument for a guaranteed minimum income. "In twenty years," wrote Donald Michaels in a Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions book, "most of our citizens will be unable to understand the cybernated world in which we live ... the problems of government will be beyond the ken even of our college graduates. Most people will have had to recognize that, when it comes to logic, the machines by and large can think better thanl they.... There will be a small, almost separate society of people in rapport with the advanced computers. These cyberneticians will have established a relationship with their machines that cannot be, shared with the average man. Those with the talent for the work probably will have to develop it from childhood and will be trained as extensively as classical ballerinas." Professor John Wilkinson of the University of California called for the founding of human sanctuaries "as we establish refuges for condors and whooping cranes."

Presented by

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.


The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.


A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.


Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.


Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In