Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chess & Mind

I recently started learning something new: 
The Lewis Chessmen. 

I never played it, I didn't know anyone who played it, and my total exposure to chess came from books and films in which people played chess (see: Searching for Bobby Fischer, Fresh, The Lymond Chronicles (especially Pawn in Frankincense), The Americans, Cairo Time, WarGames, The West Wing, etc.). In the cultural artifacts that introduced me to the game, it was always heralded as something really hard. When a character plays chess in a story, it tells the audience that the person (Fresh, Jed Bartlet, or Francis Crawford) playing is always several steps ahead of the people around them. Chess players think ahead, they can strategize, they can "see the whole board." And the mathematical nature of chess, especially (so I'm told) at its highest levels, lends itself to computational technology. (I vividly remember the Kasparov-Deep Blue matchup.) 

But I confess that I'm confused about how and why chess became a yardstick for intelligence and, in some cases, for humanity, insofar as "human intelligence" is a proxy for what makes us uniquely human. Humans have been building calculating machines for millennia--even before chess was invented. Why is it that the element of human intelligence that is the *easiest* to reproduce with machinery became associated with chess, and used as a marker for intelligence itself? When did this start to happen? And what does this reveal about historical theories of mind and cognition--have they changed sufficiently over the past centuries to reveal any changes in terms of the importance chess as a measure of intellectual capability?


Will Thomas said...

This is a great subject. I've just been reading Simon Schaffer's "Enlightened Automata" for a blog post that will probably not actually appear until 2014. I'm sure you know all about this, but he goes into some detail about 18th-century debates about whether such a machine was even plausible.

Picking the story up in the 20th century, Robert Leonard's recent book Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the Creation of Game Theory: From Chess to Social Science, 1900-1960, begins with an exposition on the culture of chess in early 20th-century Central Europe. Hunter Heyck's biography of Herbert Simon (pioneer of artificial intelligence, among other hats he wore) also discusses in at least a little depth Simon's use of chess as a model problem in developing theories of decision-making.

So, my guess is, there's got to be some sort of through-story spanning the 18th and 20th-century versions of this issue, and, no doubt, reaching back to much earlier. Unfortunately, I have no knowledge of that, which is really your question. But, it's definitely something I'd like to read a review about.

E. R. Truitt said...

I checked with Tom Standage on this via Twitter, and he says that it was actually The Turk--the *fake* automaton--that is largely responsible for the link between chess and artificial intelligence. I find this both plausible and mind-blowing, since The Turk was actually a chess expert and little person, rather than a machine.