Home > Benjamin Franklin, Chess, Garry Kasparov, Jonah Lehrer, Neuroscience > Computers, Cortex, Cosmos, and Chess

Computers, Cortex, Cosmos, and Chess


Chess is often a potent (however hackneyed) metaphor in films because of the many ways it provides insight on the human mind, human interaction, and humans’ relationship with machines. In his 1750 article, “The Morals of Chess”, Benjamin Franklin argues that chess teaches man the value of circumspection. Today, neuroscientists like Jonah Lehrer, argue that chess can teach us something about the nature of intuition.

Although we tend to think of experts as being weighted down by information, their intelligence dependent on a vast set of facts, experts are actually profoundly intuitive. When experts evaluate a situation, they don’t systematically compare all the available options or consciously analyze the relevant information. Carlsen, for instance, doesn’t compute the probabilities of winning if he moves his rook to the left rather than the right. Instead, experts naturally depend on the emotions generated by their experience. Their prediction errors – all those mistakes they made in the past – have been translated into useful knowledge, which allows them to tap into a set of accurate feelings they can’t begin to explain. Neils Bohr said it best: an expert is “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” From the perspective of the brain, Bohr was absolutely right.

And this is why we shouldn’t be surprised that a chess prodigy raised on chess computer programs would be even more intuitive than traditional grandmasters. The software allows him to play more chess, which allows him to make more mistakes, which allows him to accumulate experience at a prodigious pace.

Although ‘man vs machine’ has often been the story of chess computers, they don’t get enough credit for how their analytical way of looking at chess has improved human play. In the New York Review of Books, Garry Kasparov discusses the relationship between the human mind and artificial intelligence in chess programs. It turns out that computer programs don’t (can’t) just process every move imaginable finding the perfect solution to the game. The numbers for that are far too great. Thus, man’s tiny place in the universe is once again confirmed while simultaneously shedding light on the amazing power of our minds in the face of the tremendous.

The number of legal chess positions is 1040, the number of different possible games, 10120. Authors have attempted various ways to convey this immensity, usually based on one of the few fields to regularly employ such exponents, astronomy. In his book Chess Metaphors, Diego Rasskin-Gutman points out that a player looking eight moves ahead is already presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy. Another staple, a variation of which is also used by Rasskin-Gutman, is to say there are more possible chess games than the number of atoms in the universe.

How many other games allow us to peer so deeply into our technology, our psychology, our universe?

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